Carriers including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were under growing pressure yesterday to refuse to carry asylum-seekers being forcibly removed from Britain after activists threatened direct action over allegations that detainees are being abused.
The airlines were accused of profiting from the forced removals programme, which has given rise to a dossier of 200 cases where deportees have claimed physical and mental mistreatment by their British escort teams. The Independent can reveal that the Home Office paid British Airways more than £4.3m in 2006 to carry failed asylum-seekers and their escorts.
A succession of carriers insisted they were obliged by law to accept the passengers. The Home Office said its Borders and Immigration Agency, which is in charge of funding the removals, recognised the right of the captains of aircraft to refuse to carry a detainee for "security or commercial reasons".
Gordon Brown said the Government would not halt the programme, despite growing evidence that Britain is sending failed detainees to countries with repressive regimes. He said: "We have got to expel those people who come to our country but have got no justification being here."
More than 18,000 failed asylum-seekers were removed from Britain last year by air. One charter operator, XL Airways, became the first airline to reject the policy after it said last weekend that it was refusing such flights out of "sympathy for all dispossessed persons in the world".
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) said it would picket offices and launch a letter-writing campaign demanding that carriers halt the practice.
Emma Ginn, one of the group's founders, said: "The airlines do not sell these seats at a loss, they are profiting from this trade at a time when the reality of what takes place has been made clear." She said there should be no forced removals under such circumstances.
In the last two years, 1,173 attempts to remove failed asylum-seekers have been abandoned by their escorts. The Independent last week revealed the cases of Armand Tchuibeu and Beatrice Guessie, both from Cameroon, who said they suffered physical violence and, in the case of Mr Tchuibeu, racist abuse. Ms Guessie required hospital treatment for injuries including severe genital bleeding allegedly inflicted by her escorts after the Cameroonian authorities refused to accept her.
Each of the six airlines contacted by The Independent insisted yesterday that they are obliged under the 1971 Immigration Act to carry the detainees. None of the carriers was willing to provide details of the number of failed asylum-seekers they carry.
The Home Office said it expected escort staff contracted by the Border and Immigration Agency to act with "professionalism and integrity" and that any allegations of abuse would be fully investigation.
'They took my trousers off and tied my legs' - David, 37, Ugandan asylum-seeker
Despite being tortured and imprisoned in Uganda before arriving in Britain two years ago, David was subjected to four removal attempts – one on a BA flight from London Heathrow to Entebbe in June 2005.
He suffers from high blood pressure and suspected epilepsy due to injuries received in prison. Describing how he was brought to the BA flight, he said: "I was in a van and handcuffed to be flown to Entebbe. I was not shown any documents. I was told I could speak to immigration. The handcuffs were too tight, they would not loosen them. After two hours they took me on to the plane. I resisted and screamed. They took off my trousers and tied my legs. They pushed me down and put a pillow over my mouth. The flight attendant advised them to seat me upright. Then she saw my wrists were bleeding. She talked to the captain, who told them to remove me. They dumped me in the van and drove me to Colnbrook [Detention Centre], handcuffed." Supporters say David's allegations were reported but no response has been given. He has been given temporary leave to remain in Britain.