Franco-British charter flights to deport Afghan refugees


On 21 October, 2008, 25 Afghani refugees, who had been held in detention for 15 days, were brought before the Coquelles court. A second court hearing, with further 20 Afghan claimants, took place on 22 October. French officials say if the Afghan authorities recognise them as Afghan nationals, they can be sent back to Afghanistan. No diplomatic agreement had been possible with Afghanistan so far as the latter does not recognise ‘clandestines’, or those without papers.

Although the Afghan detainees have been released since, the recent court hearings are clearly linked to a new Franco-Afghan accord, of which little is known so far. The new attitude of the Afghan government would also provide the French authorities with an ‘opportunity’ to resolve the ‘impossible’ situation in the port of Calais, north France, where thousands of people who have been denied asylum sleep rough as they search for ways to smuggle themselves onto lorries heading to the UK.

Last week, French riot police began a mass operation in Calais to ‘clear up illegal camps’ used by refugees waiting to find a way into Britain. Hundreds of armed officers dismantled the make-shift homes of about 350 of the 1,000 or so stuck in Calais.

John O from the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) said: “Everyone is aware that foreign intervention in Afghanistan sent the country down the toilet years ago. All the foreign armies that are in Afghanistan at the moment are on record that they cannot ‘bring order’ to Afghanistan. The Afghan government itself, whose writ only runs in the capital Kabul, says it cannot bring order. Yet, the French and British governments say Afghanistan is ‘safe’. They are either out of touch with reality or unbelievably hypocritical.”

Afghanistan continues to be listed, by Crisis Watch for example, among the top “continuing conflicts that create refugees.” According to Home Office statistics, Afghans are among the top nationalities in terms of the number of asylum applicants. In the first quarter of 2008, Afghan nationals accounted for the highest number of applications: 830 out of 6,595, 10% higher than for the same period in 2007. In total, there were 2,570 asylum applicants from Afghanistan in 2007, the highest number from any country. However, Afghan nationals also continue to be the top nationality in the UK subject to forced removals. In the first three months of this year, 270 Afghans were deported out of a total of 3,025 (including dependants). Humanitarian agency the Edmund Rice Centre has recently produced documentary evidence that nine Afghan refugees returned from Australia were killed by Taliban forces, and further 11 are estimated to have also died.

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 now resorting more frequently to ‘ethnic charter flights’. 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. Of these, 18 flights were to Afghanistan, removing a total of 415 people. The code name given by the immigration authorities to charter flights deporting people to Afghanistan is ‘Operation Ravel’. On 11th March, 2008, flight PVT008, operated by Hamburg International Airlines, carried a number of Afghan asylum seekers to Baku, Azerbaijan, for onward transit to Kabul. Some of those deported are known to have been detained in Tinsley House immigration prison at Gatwick airport.

The UK stopped deporting Afghan refugees in 1995 as the country was then regarded “unstable”. Failed Afghan asylum seekers were granted Exceptional Leave to Remain in the UK. But the rules of the game changed after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. A so-called Voluntary Assisted Return programme was introduced for Afghan refugees in 2003, operated by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental agency set up during the Cold War to monitor and manage global migration trends. Single claimants were then offered a £600 inducement (up to £2,500 for families) to leave the country and go back to Afghanistan.

Now it seems both ‘voluntary’ returns and individual forced removals are deemed to be draining the nation’s tax payers – unlike city investment firms and banks. As a remedy, European governments are resorting to joint charter flights, where a plane operated by a contracted charter airline stops at various European cities to pick up deportees and fly them to their possible deaths.

Undertaking deportation charter flights poses a reputational risk for some commercial airlines. Last year, 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. Other airlines that are known to operate deportation charter flights from the UK include Hamburg International, Channel Express and Air Partners.

In June 2005, the interior ministers of the five largest European countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Britain) announced they would be organising “joint charter flights” to increase the number of deportations from their countries, thereby disregarding international and human rights conventions. The first destination was then set to be Afghanistan. Soon after, there was a sharp increase in the number of Afghan refugees arrested and placed in detention centres on both sides of the Channel. A joint French-British deportation charter flight to Kabul took off from Paris in July that year. The following week, another joint flight left from London, stopped in Paris and landed in Kabul, carrying at least 60 young Afghans who had been denied asylum in the UK and France.

Although a number of joint flights had been organised on a bilateral basis, it was the French government who took the lead in July 2002 in “rationalising expulsion measures”, in particular by means of “group returns”. France opened talks with Germany and the UK on the possibility of “joint European charters”. There followed the Afghanistan Return Programme agreed in 2003, which covered both ‘voluntary’ and forced removals. In another proposal to the European Council, Italy sought to formalise joint EU flights by covering all countries of origin or the last safe third country passed through on a global basis. This would allow, it was said, “group removals” by EU governments to be conducted “as efficiently as possible by sharing removal capacities for rational repatriation operations.”

Campaigners argue that such joint flights amount to collective expulsion, which is prohibited under Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.