An important part of the Government's immigration policy has suffered a serious blow after a leading airline announced it would no longer carry failed asylum-seekers who were being forcibly removed from the United Kingdom.
XL Airways, which has a fleet of 24 aircraft, said it was opposed to the policy because it had "sympathy for all dispossessed people in the world".
Last week, The Independent revealed that hundreds of failed asylum-seekers have claimed they have suffered physical and racial abuse during the removal process at the hands of private security guards.
The Government relies on airlines using chartered and scheduled aircraft to deport asylum-seekers who have failed to win a right to remain in the UK.
In an email to a campaign group which supports failed asylum seekers, XL said its chief executive had told the Government it had not "fully understood" the political dimensions of these flights. In February, one of its aircraft was used to deport 40 failed asylum-seekers to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the Government's "operation castor".
Now it has emerged that the airline has written to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns confirming its decision to pull out of any further flights. The XL email, sent on 12 September, said: "We had a contract with the Government along with other carriers, for a range of flying. Under this contract we operated one flight in February to DR Congo as part of this contract, without full understanding of the political dimensions involved.
"Our chief executive [Phillip Wyatt] had made it quite clear to all concerned that we will not be operating any further flights of this nature ... We are not neutral on the issue and have sympathy for all dispossessed persons in the world, hence our stance."
A spokesman for the airline told The Independent the Government had been informed of its decision. Other airlines are now expected to make their own objections public.
It is not known how many airlines have contracted to carry failed asylum-seekers but it is estimated that the Government pays out several million pounds each year. Emma Ginn, of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, said last night: "It's time airlines rethink what they are doing. Shareholders and customers will be horrified by the reality of what happens to deportees taken for these flights."
The Borders and Immigration Agency, the government body that has responsibility for forced removals, has refused to disclose details, requested under the Freedom of Information Act, about deportation flights. The agency said: "If we were to disclose the information you have requested, this would prejudice the number of airlines willing to contract with the agency on charter operations and could drive up the cost of such operations. In addition, the release of information could damage commercially those airlines who offer this service."
British Airways and Virgin, who were contacted by The Independent, said their aircraft had been used for the purposes of escorted deportations as they were under a legal obligation to return failed asylum-seekers. A Virgin spokesperson said: "That is a matter for the Home Office, who makes immigration policy. We are simply not qualified to make those decisions."
British Airways refused to say how many removals it carried out each year, but said it adopted a policy of permitting one escorted or two unescorted removals per flight : "It is UK law and we comply with it – it's like asking whether we are happy paying income tax."
But a Home Office spokesman said the Borders and Immigration Agency only contracted with airlines willing to operate removal flights. He added: "The agency uses agents/brokers to arrange both charter and scheduled removals. Airline captains have the right to refuse carriage of a passenger and will do so if they feel appropriate for security or commercial reasons."