The use of deportation ‘reserves’ continues a year after MPs demanded that the UK Border Agency should stop this ‘inhumane’ practice, Corporate Watch and Stop Deportation reveal in a joint investigation published in the Observer today.
In January last year, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee called for an immediate halt to the practice of taking additional deportees from detention centres to airports as ‘reserves’, in case some of those due to be deported were taken off a flight as a result of last-minute legal representations.
The committee’s chair, Keith Vaz, condemned the practice as “inhumane” and demanded that it should cease. “It is simply inhumane to uproot somebody on the expectation that they will be returned to their home country only to then return them at the end of the day to a detention centre in the UK,” he said.
However, data obtained by Corporate Watch and Stop Deportation under Freedom of Information legislation show that the agency used reserves for half of all deportation charter flights in the year following the select committee’s recommendation that the practice “should be discontinued.”
Between January and December 2012, of the 42 deportation charter flights that left the UK, 21 made use of ‘reserves’. Of these, nine were to Pakistan, six to Afghanistan, five to Nigeria, Ghana and DR Congo, and one to Sri Lanka.
Figures for how many reserves were used are only available for some of these flights. For example, in February 2012, 11 reserves were used on a charter flight to Pakistan, amounting to 22 per cent of the 50 people removed on that flight. In the same month, 14 reserves were used on a charter flight to Afghanistan, amounting to 23 per cent of the 60 people removed.
According to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick, who first criticised the practice in May 2011, the UKBA has rejected his recommendation that the practice should cease “on grounds of efficiency.”
In his report, which observed that Afghan detainees held at Tinsley House detention centre, near Gatwick airport, were being taken to the airport as ‘reserves’, Mr Hardwick had described the practice as “objectionable, distressing and inhumane.”
Instead of implementing the inspector’s and the select committee’s recommendations, the UKBA has now institutionalised the practice by issuing detainees with letters telling them they may or may not be deported.
The standard letter, introduced in June 2012 and seen by Corporate Watch and Stop Deportation, informs its recipient that they are “one of a number of reserve travelers for this flight.”
“You will be taken to the departure airport and you should be prepared to travel as specified on your removal directions,” the letter adds. “However, if you do not travel, given your reserve status, you will be returned to an Immigration Removal Centre.”
Campaigners argue the new letters do not change the inhumane nature of the reserves practice. “Detainees told they are reserves, that they may or may not be deported, are left even more disorientated, uncertain and sometimes traumatised,” said Philip Miller from Stop Deportation.
Immigration legal practitioners also say the letters, as well as the use of reserves, may be in breach of the UKBA’s own Enforcement Instructions and Guidance, which state that, for a person to be detained and issued with Removal Directions, there must be “a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period.”
The letter makes it clear that the removal of reserves is contingent on other passengers’ removal being cancelled at the last minute – a highly unpredictable factor. “The reason for this is to ensure that any passengers who are unable to travel will be substituted by those on the reserve list,” the letter states.
The letter does include a caveat informing reserves that, in case they did not fly on the designated flight, “arrangements would then be made for your return to (destination country) at the earliest opportunity.” However, charter flights are not systematic and are planned, by the UKBA’s own admission, in accordance with the “business needs” of the agency. “Where necessary, we revise the frequency and capacity of the flight,” another recent Freedom of Information response by the agency stated.
Frances Webber, an immigration legal expert, said: “The UKBA could be in breach of Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention, which bans inhumane or degrading treatment.” “Once again, cost-saving trumps humanity as far as the Home Office is concerned,” she added.
Prior to a charter flight to Sri Lanka on 28th February 2012, 153 Tamil detainees were issued with Removal Directions, of which 15 people were allocated ‘reserve’ status for the flight. 44 men and 8 women were eventually removed from the UK.
Campaigners from the Stop Deportation network spoke to one reserve, who said he was loaded onto a coach with dozens of others at 9.30am from one of Heathrow airport’s two detention centres. When they arrived at Stansted airport around 11am, everyone had to stay inside the coach, which was parked within site of the aircraft. The flight was not scheduled to leave until 3:30pm.
“He was so afraid of returning to Sri Lanka that he was vomiting,” said Philip Miller, who spoke with the man on the phone. “Along with 6 or 7 others on the coach, he was not put on the flight. He was brought back from the airport to a different detention centre, Brook House at Gatwick airport.”
According to the man, who preferred to stay anonymous, the returned reserves were kept on board the coach until 10pm, before being processed and put in cells around midnight. “Throughout this 15-hour ordeal, I was only given a sandwich to eat,” he added.
The UKBA had previously defended its reserves policy on the grounds that “preparing more foreign nationals for removal than there is space for makes best use of taxpayers’ money. It means that if a last minute legal challenge is launched that stops us from removing someone on a particular flight, then another detainee is able to take their place.”
A comment left by an anonymous Home Office Presenting Officer (HOPO) on the popular immigration law blog freemovement.org.uk on 29th February 2012 shows what critics described as the “cynical mentality” behind the reserves policy. If ten people’s removal was cancelled on the day of the flight, the comment said, “the effect would have been that ten reserves (who were unable to stump up the cash) would have flown instead.”
However, this only seems possible because High Court judges appear to be overwhelmed by the UKBA’s reserves policy.
Prior to another charter flight to Sri Lanka on 28th September 2011, the UKBA issued 92 removal directions but only removed 42 men and 8 women. In a Statement of Facts about the case of N, the judge noted that the claimant was one of 20 or so failed asylum-seekers due to removed on the same flight who were asking for a stay on their removal. “Although some of the applications could be considered by other judges when they became available,” he said, “it was plain by about 14.00 that I would not be able to consider all the remaining applications by 15.00.”
“In those circumstances,” the judge added, “I was informed by UKBA’s Operational Support and Certification Unit which of the remaining applicants were on the main manifest, and which were on a reserve list and therefore liable to be included on the main manifest only if someone on the main manifest was removed from the flight. Although my priority was to deal with the applications of those on the main manifest, I had not reached the claimant’s case by 15.28 when I was told that the [plane] doors were about to close. I was informed yesterday [29/09/2011] that the claimant had been on the flight.”
Corporate Watch and Stop Deportation, a UK-based campaign group focusing on charter flight deportations, are currently working on a joint report examining the various legal aspects of charter flight deportations.