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UK Politics

Government accused of wasting taxpayer money on 'half empty' chartered deportation flights to Sri Lanka

Most of the £250,000 flights leave Britain half empty following last minute injunctions halting the removal of clients amid torture fears

The Government has been accused of wasting taxpayer money by continuing to commission chartered deportations flights to Sri Lanka at a time when the High Court is regularly issuing injunctions banning the removal of Tamils because they are at risk of being tortured.

Most of the recent charter flights this year, which can cost up to £250,000 a time, have left Britain half empty because torture in Sri Lanka has become so commonplace that lawyers are able to get last minute injunctions halting the removal of the clients.

Undeterred, the UK Border Agency is still determined to press ahead with the fights with the latest charter plane due to leave later tomorrow from an undisclosed London airport. Protestors have vowed to try and stop buses leaving immigration centres from making it to the airport.

In June more than 50 predominantly Tamil failed asylum seekers were removed from a deportation flight after a High Court judge agreed that there was a risk they might be tortured. Last month the Government tried to a similar initiative but had to remove more than 20 people at the last minute after judges ruled that anyone with a perceived or real link to the Tamil Tigers, or anyone who claimed they had been tortured in Sri Lanka, could not be deported. Those who did leave on the half empty planes tended to be those with non-political affiliations such as economic migrants, visa over stayers and convicted criminals.

Despite the regular setbacks in the High Court, which can cost tax payers tens of thousands of pounds each day in legal fees and court costs,  the UK Border Agency shows no sign of rethinking its deportation strategy for Sri Lanka, a country where the torture of returned asylum seekers has been empirically documented.

Today lawyers were once more in court to try and halt the imminent removal of more than a dozen Tamils who have been placed on the eviction list for tomorrow’s charter flight. Among those on the list are people who either have a connection with the Tamil Tigers or are perceived to be associated with them.

The inefficiency of charter flights is something that has united both pro and anti-immigration groups with both sides lining up to criticise the government for wasting money.

“The Home Office has a duty to remove individuals who aren't meant to be in the country, yet sending failed asylum seekers back on empty planes is a waste of money that makes no sense,” said Robert Oxley, from the Tax Payers’ Alliance, which campaigns for increased deportations. “If so many deportations are being overturned at the last minute then ministers should look at strength of the deportation cases in the first place and whether the law is working as it should.”

Jan Jananayagam, from Tamils Against Genocide, a non-profit which has documented the torture of forcible returnees, added: “The entire asylum processing system is inefficient at multiple levels. It is not only the tax-payer funded half-empty flights to Colombo that are wasteful. So many of these cases are a waste of public money because many asylum cases are funded by charities, lawyers working pro-bono or at earlier stages via legal aid. And of course UK Border Agency is funded by the tax payer. So both sides of the argument are funded by the public.”

Obtaining exact figures of how full flights are when they leave Britain is difficult because Home Office has resisted requests to regularly publish data. A freedom of information request published earlier this however found that the UKBA had spent £133million in the last five years on deportation flights, the equivalent of £5,000 for every person.

Many left with a fraction of their capacity filled. In November, last year, a flight destined for Ghana had 233 seats, but returned only 23 people and had 58 staff aboard. The following month another plane heading to Afghanistan returned only 59 people but required 115 staff aboard who occupied most of the 224 available seats.

The deportation flights to Sri Lanka are particularly problematic because they come at a time of growing evidence documenting how rampant torture has become for forcible returnees of Tamil ethnic origin.

In 2009 the Sri Lankan government finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a brutal terror group who waged a thirty year insurgency against the government in Colombo. The war cost tens of thousands of lives and - according to the UN – war crimes were committed on both sides.

With the LTTE militarily defeated at home, Colombo has become determined to make sure it is not resurrected within the Tamil diaspora, particularly in London and Toronto where support for the Tigers remains high.

As a result, many Tamils returning from Britain have been arrested, interrogated and tortured for information on their communities, both in the UK and Sri Lanka. Human rights groups have documented more than 30 examples of Tamils who were forcibly deported by Britain and then tortured on their return.

The UK Border Agency continues to insist that it only deports Tamils who are not at risk of torture but High Court judges have grown increasingly uncomfortable about sending them back given such overwhelming evidence.

One man held at a removal centre in West London and on today’s deportation flight told The Independent by telephone why he felt he was at risk. The man, who asked not to be named, worked for an agricultural NGO in northern Sri Lanka and was captured by the army after the war ended.

“Any NGO had to work with the local LTTE captains so they accused me of being a Tamil Tiger and tortured me,” he said. “Since escaping I have been told that my family have been questioned and tortured. They want to know where I am. If I get sent back I am sure I will be tortured again.”

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said:“Charter flights represent the most cost-effective way of removing large numbers of people from the UK. It is right that those with no right to be here should go home and these flights are vital to ensuring we remove individuals who refuse to leave the UK voluntarily, many of whom seek to prevent their removal through disruptive, aggressive and violent behaviour.”