Horrors of self-harm and desperation on failed Rwanda flight revealed by officer testimonies

Exclusive: Documents revealed days before High Court challenge show asylum seekers were forced onto plane and restrained

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
,Aaron Walawalkar,Eleanor Rose
Saturday 03 September 2022 19:11 BST
Shocking accounts have been obtained under freedom of information laws
Shocking accounts have been obtained under freedom of information laws (Getty/The Independent)
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The full horrors of the “inhumane” treatment endured by asylum seekers forced onto a failed deportation flight to Rwanda have been laid bare in new testimonies from security officers.

Documents released by the Home Office showed that detainees self-harmed, threatened suicide, and were put into “pain-inducing” restraint after begging not to be deported from the UK. One man was found cutting his wrists with shards of a drinks can, while another smashed his head against a plane seat while screaming “No, no” in desperate scenes on 14 June.

The shocking accounts, obtained under freedom of information laws by Liberty Investigates and seen by The Independent, come as the first judicial review of the Rwanda policy begins on Monday.

Groups bringing the case said the documents demonstrate the “horrors” that await if flights go ahead, adding: “If these testimonies don’t persuade the new prime minister to change their mind and scrap these proposals, surely nothing will.”

They called for the new prime minister to dump the plan, but frontrunner Liz Truss has vowed to “support and extend the Rwanda policy to more countries”.

Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said that many people targeted by the scheme have already “suffered unimaginable horrors”.

“It is incomprehensible that our government is now trying to expel them to a country that is renowned for repression,” she told The Independent. “Reports of self-harm and sheer distress among those being expelled only serve to highlight that the government is happy to re-traumatise and further victimise people who are seeking our protection. This is nothing short of a moral and legal aberration.”

Forms filled out by custody staff after “use of force incidents” show how the detainees started crying, screaming, shouting and frantically calling lawyers and loved ones after being told they would be sent to Rwanda.

When custody officers went to take one asylum seeker from his room at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow airport, they found him self-harming on his bed. A report said he was bleeding after making “cuts to his right arm using parts of a drinks can”, and would not stop cutting himself until officers seized his arms.

The man was treated by a nurse before being handed over to escorts tasked with transporting him to the plane, which was waiting at Boscombe Down military base in Wiltshire.

How did the ECHR stop the first Rwanda deportation flight?

He was put under constant supervision as part of an official suicide prevention strategy, while a second asylum seeker told staff that he would “kill himself” if he was forced to get on the flight. That detainee was then put in a waist restraint belt and physically attached to a plane seat.

When he started thrashing around and shouting “No, no”, his head was held in place by custody staff, who said they needed to “ensure he did not headbutt either of the escorts or injure himself”.

“He continued to scream,” said an official report filed on the use of force. “At approximately 10.16pm we were informed that the flight was cancelled. He immediately stopped shouting ... he beamed with delight and hugged each of us in turn, it was very moving.”

Reports said that a third man “stated to the interpreter that he did not want to go and dropped to the floor on his knees” before being taken out of Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. Staff described him as “very distressed” and said that after boarding the plane he “started to scream and to hit his head against the seat in front”.

One of the custody officers described restraining his wrists, arms and head, and then, when he started biting his tongue, applying a “mandibular angle” pain technique to make him release it.

Home Office guidance states that such pain-inducing techniques should never be used when there is an alternative but are “justifiable if that is the only viable and practical way of dealing with a violent incident which poses an immediate risk of serious physical harm”.

The man was restrained until the announcement was made that the flight would not take off, following a wave of legal challenges and injunctions by the European Court of Human Rights.

Priti Patel and Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation Vincent Biruta sign a migration and economic development partnership in Kigali in April
Priti Patel and Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation Vincent Biruta sign a migration and economic development partnership in Kigali in April (PA Wire)

A fourth detainee was put in a waist restraint belt and had pain applied to his wrist in a van to the airfield because he “became disruptive” after an emotional phone call to his sister. A custody officer said he “applied pressure to gain compliance”, and his colleague said the man “was shouting that his wrist was hurting and his heart was breaking”.

Officers later took the “very upset” man onto the plane with his hands restrained.

The forms detailed how a fifth passenger was “guided” out of a detention centre after refusing to leave and stating that he would not go to Rwanda. An officer recounted that while staff tried to persuade him to leave voluntarily, “he appeared as if he may throw up, holding his stomach and bending forward”.

The harrowing accounts were revealed days before the first of two legal challenges against the Rwanda policy is to be heard at the High Court. No further attempted flights have taken place, and all the asylum seekers put on the June charter have been released from immigration detention following threats of legal action for unlawful imprisonment.

Care4Calais, which is one of the charities bringing the legal challenge, said the accounts were “further evidence of the mental and physical harm the government’s brutal Rwanda deportation policy inflicts on refugees”. Founder Clare Moseley added: “Given the more humane and effective options available, is this barbaric policy really what our country wants to do?”

The PCS union, which represents Border Force staff and is also backing the court action, said the testimonies “reveal further horrors that lie behind the government’s plans”.

“Refugees are terrified of what is ahead of them, while our members find themselves in the deeply undesirable position of having to implement the Rwanda policy – they consider it grossly inhumane and they are right to do so,” Paul O’Connor said.

“When security guards are restraining people to prevent them from self-harming, the utter inhumanity of this policy is starkly illustrated. If these testimonies don’t persuade the new prime minister to change their mind and scrap these proposals, surely nothing will.”

Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said the testimonies should “shame the government”. She added: “Asking public servants to use force against self-harming asylum seekers in order to send them to a country where they face a risk of further persecution is deeply dangerous. The incoming prime minister must dump this policy or be prepared to dehumanise not just those who are subject to it, but those tasked with implementing it as well.”

On Friday the government announced the appointment of an eight-strong Independent Monitoring Committee that will oversee the deal’s compliance with human rights, but lawyers have already warned that the commitments are not legally binding or enforceable.

One of the UK’s four appointees, Alexander Downer, is a former minister in the Australian government who was among the architects of an offshoring policy that saw refugees commit suicide and set themselves on fire on Nauru and Manus Island.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our staff and escorting providers are rigorously trained to ensure the safety of returnees throughout the removal process.

“Our world-leading Migration Partnership with Rwanda will see those who make dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys to the UK relocated to Rwanda and, if recognised as refugees, they will be supported to build a new life there.”

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