Grounding deportation airlines
This month saw a number of mass deportation flights to Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria. A charter flight that carried dozens of Afghan refugees to Kabul on 15th June was provided by BMI. The Derby-based airline still claimed it was “not doing charters to Afghanistan.” Other companies profiting from forcible deportations this month included British Airways, Air Finland, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and WH Tours, some of which have been subject to ongoing campaigns.
BMI: Blatantly Misleading Information
Around 2:30pm on Tuesday, 15th July, some 29 Afghan detainees held at Tinsley House detention centre, near Gatwick airport, were put on coaches provided by WH Tours and taken to Stanstead airport. After a couple of hours’ delay they arrived at the airport, where they were joined by another 50 or so Afghan refugees brought from other detention centres. People were forced to stay on coaches at the airport until 9pm, without being allowed to move or leave their seats. The flight departed at 10pm.
The deportees were accompanied by at least the same number of immigration officers and private security guards provided by G4S, who were meant to ‘swap’ with guards from Azerbaijan when the flight changed in Baku. One of the deportees described to supporters the secrecy with which the ‘operation’ was carried out: “It was very secret; the plane was all the way in one corner of the airport, away from everyone else.”
A number of deportees, as well as detainees who were taken to the airport but returned to detention as the plane was ‘full’, confirmed that the plane was white, blue and red and carried the initials ‘bmi’. Yet, when asked by campaigners, someone at BMI’s Charter Department claimed the airline was “not doing charters to Afghanistan at the moment.. and no other UK airline is.”
A few days before the mass deportation flight to Afghanistan, anti-deportation campaigners had called for a mass phone blockade of BMI phone lines on 15th June, as it transpired that the airline had been providing regular mass deportation flights to Kabul.
BMI has been subject to an ongoing campaign due to its role in the forcible deportation of migrants. The campaign was started in 2008 by No Borders South Wales, after a member of the group, Babi Badalov, was deported on 20th September that year on a BMI flight to Azerbaijan, where he had experienced physical abuse and state persecution (see here for more details).
In addition to charter flights to Afghanistan, BMI has been carrying individual deportees on a regular basis. In the past few months, the airline has deported people to Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran and other unsafe countries.
In email correspondence with campaigners two years ago, BMI’s CEO Nigel Turner claimed that his company “does not knowingly deport people to persecution or similar peril. You will understand I do not have the time or resources to investigate each case myself nor do bmi.” In another email, he admitted that he was “not going to agree [with protesters] on this one” and that “to take your stance would involve us making a decision that the UK borders and the courts of the land do not properly safeguards of individuals [sic].” (see here).
There is plenty of evidence that this ‘improper safeguarding of individuals’ is, indeed, the case and it has been repeatedly put forward to airlines carrying out deportations, some of which have pulled out on ‘moral’ grounds in the past. In 2007, 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). In September 2009, Air Italy, which carried 44 Iraqi refugees to Baghdad in the first mass deportation to southern Iraq from the UK since the US-UK invasion in 2003, said, after pressure from campaigners, that it will not undertake any more deportation flights in the future (see here).
BMI is also known to have been registering protest phone calls. Two years ago, during a similar phone blockade, campaigners registering their dismay at a deportation flight, scheduled for 21st November 2008, were told by the BMI switchboard operator that their numbers would be “logged and passed on to the chief executive.”