“Another charter flight is coming. They want to put me on it. I am scared. I won’t be able to survive. I don’t have any family there.”
This was the desperate plea of a 21-year-old in March last year after hearing they were about to be put on a secretive government night flight sending people to Nigeria and Ghana.
This distressed message was posted on the Detained Voices website, a collective which publicises the plight of people in detention.
Another cry for help came from a lesbian woman who said her abusive ex-husband knew she was being deported and he was going to kill her on arrival. She had come to the UK believing she would be able to live freely as a lesbian, something she couldn’t do in Nigeria, where LGBTQ relationships are illegal – punishable by death or imprisonment.
Believing these and other fears were well-founded, we decided to respond to these distress calls by stopping a Titan Airways flight due to deport these frightened, vulnerable people from the UK.
We locked ourselves to each other around the nose-wheel of the plane at Stansted airport. It was direct action, wholly peaceful and in our minds a clear matter of conscience. Our sweatshirts read “mass deportations kill” and “no one is illegal”.
As direct result of our actions 11 of the 60 people scheduled to be on the plane are still in Britain fighting their cases. These include trafficking survivors – women who had escaped sexual slavery – and asylum-seekers with ongoing claims. Two people have since secured permission to stay in the country.
But months after our intervention we ourselves were charged with “endangering safety at an aerodrome”. We've just been found guilty with sentencing due to happen in February. The maximum sentence for this is life imprisonment.
So why did we do it?
Charter flights are one of the most brutal parts of an immigration system that sees people rounded up based on their perceived nationality, detained for indefinite periods and then forcibly removed. These are people from our communities, our families, our neighbours and our friends.
The deportation process often involves the use of violent restraint techniques. In 2016, eight Tascor guards physically restrained a man, dragged him onto a plane and tied him to his seat.
Such restraint techniques are the norm rather than the exception. In 2013, a mentally-ill Nigerian woman called Ms D, who resisted removal because she was so afraid of being sent to Nigeria, was placed in leg restraints for more than ten hours and in handcuffs for 14.
On arrival at Lagos airport she sat on the runway and overdosed on her antipsychotic medication. Most notoriously, in 2010 an Angolan man called Jimmy Mubenga died after three G4S guards forced his head down as a BA flight prepared to take off. Mubenga was reported to have been handcuffed from behind with his seatbelt on, his desperate cries that he couldn’t breathe were apparently ignored.
Jimmy Mubenga’s appalling death occurred on a commercial flight. There were witnesses. Now deportations use charter flights – no witnesses and no accountability.
When we intervened at Stansted, charter flights took place from a remote part of the airfield, departing in the middle of the night with their unwilling passengers taken aboard under cover of darkness. Now, deportation charter flights leave from even more inaccessible places, such as Brize Norton, an RAF base.
Across Europe people who assist migrants are increasingly criminalised. Our trial is part of that trend and it has wide implications for the right to protest. Applying the charge they did required consent from the attorney general, but we still don’t know what that this consent was based on because the people who know have refused to disclose the reasons.
We are determined to resist the insidious creep of the anti-migrant hostile environment. It has already pervaded our schools, our hospitals and our wider communities. The government’s hostile environment is not just hostile for migrants, it’s hostile for everyone. Distrust and suspicion are being sown, and our treasured communities are being torn apart.
Far from endangering people at an airport, we acted out of humanity and compassion. It’s the Home Office’s brutal, secretive and barely legal practice of mass deportation flights that is putting people in danger, and their hostile environment policy that’s hurting vulnerable people from our communities.
In truth, it was the Home Office that should have been in the dock, not us.
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