Flying people to torture and death



Safe as death

Until last week, Assia Souhalia and her husband, Athmane, had been living in the UK for seven years. Their two-year-old daughter, Nouha, was born in Brighton in 2006 and had lived there all her life. Assia fled Algeria in 2002 in fear of her life after her family had suffered years of violence. Two of her brothers were murdered in two separate and premeditated shootings in 1993 and 1994, despite having no involvement in political activities. Upon hearing of the death of her eldest son, their mother suffered a heart attack and died. Since then, Assia’s family have repeatedly received death threats and, in 1994, another brother was murdered. In 2007, her sister was badly wounded in a bomb attack. Only one man has been arrested in relation to these murders. Two of Assia’s remaining brothers and sisters have also fled the country.

The Home Office’s policy of deporting ‘failed asylum seekers’ to Algeria has been highly controversial, to say the least. In 1997, an Algerian policeman was deported from the UK. Upon arrival at Algiers airport, he was arrested by Algerian security forces and murdered. In 2007, the Appeal Court halted the deportation of three Algerians after judges ruled that the government “could not be certain” that they would be safe from torture.


Technical problem or effective campaigning?

Nevertheless, Assia and her family were ‘snatched’ from their home in Hove early in the morning of 11th February and taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire pending deportation. The Home Office booked a British Airways flight (BA895) at 8:40am on 17th February to carry them to Algiers. A group of anti-deportation campaigners from Brighton and London gathered in Heathrow’s Terminal 5 that morning and leafleted passengers and crew members, trying to persuade them to complain to the pilot about the deportation, in the hope that the family would be taken off the plane before takeoff. The family, however, never boarded the plane and were taken back to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, allegedly because there was a “problem with their tickets,” as they were told.

One of the campaigners leafleting at the airport told Corporate Watch that most of them were stopped-and-searched by police under airport bylaws for leafleting. An independent journalist who was also there was stop-and-searched under the Terrorism Act for taking photos of the protesters being searched.

Two days later, the family were told they were due to be deported the following day, 20th February. The family were not given ‘removal directions’ until the evening before the flight but campaigners deduced that it was Air Algérie flight number AH2055, which was to leave Heathrow’s Terminal 2 at 14:05. Indeed, they went to the airport again and leafleted and spoke to most passengers but, unfortunately, that did not stop the deportation going ahead this time.

‘Responsible air travel’?!

Airlines such as British Airways and Air Algérie, which are happy to carry deportees to their possible death and torture as long as they sell tickets, have repeatedly been the subject of complaints and protests from anti-deportation campaigners. Last year, more than 1,000 Nigerians backed a call to boycott BA unless it apologised to the 136 passengers who were ordered off a flight to Lagos after they complained about the forced deportation of a man on board. In 2005, the United Network of Detained Zimbabweans called for boycotting BA and daily pickets at BA offices in London and Manchester were held as campaigners accused the airline of “playing a leading role” in the deportation of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe when other airlines had “refused to be dragged into [such a] public relations nightmare.”


Operation Con-similar

On Monday, 16th February, between 50 and 55 Iraqi refugees were forcibly deported to Iraqi Kurdistan (northern Iraq) on a special charter flight that left Stansted around 5pm and arrived in Erbil on Tuesday morning. About 80 Iraqi ‘failed asylum seekers’ had been rounded up over the previous two weeks and kept in detention pending their ‘removal’. Three people were taken off the flight following last-minute interventions by their solicitors and MPs. One deportee had won a High Court injunction but was still deported, only to be flown back to London the following day. Other solicitors have complained that the open-ended Removal Directions (i.e. deportation details) and deporting people sooner than expected meant that they did not manage to get judicial reviews or injunctions in time.

The charter flight appears to have been operated by a Czech company (possibly Czech Airlines) as the plane stopped for refuelling in the Czech Republic and there were, according to one of the deportees, signs saying ‘Czech Republic’ on the plane. The coaches that transported the deportees from Oakington, Haslar and Dover detention centres to Stansted airport were operated by WH Tours and Woodcock Coaches. The five coaches were accompanied, of course, by G4S vans. Group 4 is contracted by the Home Office to carry out deportations and detention ‘escort services’.

The first forced deportation of Iraqi Kurds from the UK took place on 19 November, 2005. 15 men were then taken to an undisclosed airport at night, handcuffed, beaten and forced onto a military plane headed for Erbil through Cyprus. The ‘operation’ sparked a lot of anger and protest and deportations to Iraqi Kurdistan were halted for a while until they were resumed in September 2006 (see here). Deportation charter flights to Iraqi Kurdistan have since become more frequent. Monday’s flight was the seventh time in the last seven months that people have been deported to Iraqi Kurdistan by charter flight.

The code name given by immigration authorities to charter flights deporting refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan is ‘Operation Consimilar’. Before last week’s flight, Hamburg International had been the main operator of Iraq deportation flights.


Safe as a war zone

One of last week deportees, Muzhdah, told the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees (IFIR) that they were accompanied by approximately 100 ‘bodyguards’. “When we arrived in Erbil,” he said, “they wouldn’t let us open the blinds to look outside. [Kurdistan Regional Government] security men took us off the plane with handcuffs and batons. They gave everyone $100 when we got off but, what’s that [worth]? I don’t feel safe and my partner, who I was going to marry before they deported me, is back in the UK.”

Although not suffering full-scale warfare like other parts of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is by no means exempt from fear, violence and social and economic problems that have turned the whole country into an unbearable place to live. In addition, it is littered with mines that continue to kill and injure people. It remains politically dangerous for those who originally left because of persecution by the two main Kurdish parties or Islamist groups, and large numbers of internally displaced persons who do not have permanent homes or jobs or decent living conditions still reside there.

Dashty Jamal of IFIR explains: “Iraqi Kurdistan is not ‘safe’, as the Home Office claims. The US-UK-led war and occupation have turned Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, into a mess. People are fleeing the country everyday, so how can you say it’s ‘safe’?” Accusing the Kurdistan Regional Government of colluding with the UK government, he adds: “It is mad that people who’d fled war and persecution are being sent back to the mercy of the very same government that persecuted them before. We call on all concerned people to take a stand against the Home Office’s increasingly callous stance.”

Furthermore, there are signs that the Home Office might start deporting people to the rest of Iraq as well, not only Kurdistan. Earlier this month, Sweden and Iraq signed a deal that will make it easier for Swedish authorities to deport Iraqi asylum seekers to Baghdad, “by force if necessary.” The deportation agreement was signed in Baghdad by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Swedish ambassador Niclas Trouve, according to the Swedish Justice Ministry. It is quite likely that the UK could follow suit in the near future.


‘Ethnic charter flights’

Using commercial flights to deport those who have been denied asylum is becoming increasingly embarrassing and costly for the government and the airline companies involved, due to successful campaigns and protests. To sustain the deportation regime, the UK government is increasingly resorting to ‘ethnic charter flights’, as campaigners call them. According to data obtained by NCADC under the Freedom of Information Act, there were 91 charter flights from the UK in the 16 months between February 2006 and May 2007 (see here). Besides Iraqi Kurdistan, the most frequent destinations included Eastern Europe (Operation Aardvark), Afghanistan (Operation Ravel) and DR Congo (Operation Castor) and Vietnam (Operation Naiad). More recently, there have also been charter flights to Jamaica, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

Undertaking deportation charter flights also poses a ‘reputational risk’ for commercial airlines, although some seem utterly unmoved and unperturbed by such considerations. However, two years ago, XL Airways withdrew from a £1.5m contract with the Home Office following a number of protests highlighting the airline’s involvement in forced deportations to DR Congo (see here). Other airlines that are known to operate deportation charter flights from the UK and Ireland include Hamburg International, Channel Express, Air Partners and now, it seems, Czech Airlines.

Describing last week’s charter flight as “a crime”, IFIR’s Dashty Jamal said: “The Czech airline, the coach companies, Group 4, Serco, the detention centres, the Home Office and the Kurdistan Regional Government – all play a part in this and all should be condemned for playing with these peoples’ lives.”