Forced deportations are much in the news today (with the emphasis on force) as news of the brutalisation of Iraqis on Wednesday's flight has leaked out, the second since the resumption of deportations direct to the Iraqi capital following last October's debacle*. Last week a flight to Baghdad also left, flying via the Netherlands and Sweden to pick up other Iraqi deportees, carrying 11 refused asylum seekers.
The reason why Wednesday's flight has become so newsworthy however are not because of the fact that the government (in the guise of the Treasury Solicitor's Department) warned the judiciary (in a letter to the High Court) not to interfere ("disrupt or delay") in the smooth running of the flights by accepting any (perfectly legal) last-minute applications for judicial reviews: "Because of the complexities, practicalities and costs involved in arranging charter flights, it is essential that these removals are not disrupted or delayed by large numbers of last-minute claims for permission to seek judicial review."
Nor were the flights particularly newsworthy because of calls by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (and Amnesty International) that such flights ignore UN guidelines about forced returns of Iraqis from the central provinces of Iraq (Ninewa [Mosul], Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah al-Din and Baghdad) that the UNHCR officially consider unsafe, and who therefore continue to warrant international asylum protection. However, the ConDem government, in their desperation to be seen to 'tough on immigration and tough on the means of immigration' and to cut costs, decided that they knew better than the UNHCR and totally ignored them, going ahead with the flights.
Unfortunately for them, this appears to have backfired on them, in the publicity stakes at least, with news that UK Borders Agency staff beat a number of the Iraqis not only to get them off the plane a Baghdad airport itself but also to get them on the plane at Heathrow in the first place. Of the 42 on the flight, 16 were still being held at Baghdad airport 24 hours after having arrived**, and of the 14 deportees that UNHCR lawyers had spoken to, all claimed to have been beaten and forced to get on the plane in London. Six of those that the UNHCR had talked to directly showed officials fresh bruising, supporting their claims.
One of those injured, a Kurd named Sherwan Abdullah, who had lived in England for eight years, told the BBC of his and others treatment at the hands of the UKBA personnel who force him off the plane in Baghdad: "They were grabbing us, they told us if you don't come down, we're going to beat you badly, and we're going to take you out... If somebody wasn't willing to come out, they grabbed them, they grabbed the neck, they nearly killed them, these people could not breathe." Mr Abdullah also claimed that Iraqi police at the airport stole all his money.
In response, the UNHCR plan to investigate the refugees' claims. The UKBA refused to respond other than issuing the standard denial that "a minimum use of force is an absolute last resort, and would only ever be used when an individual becomes disruptive or refuses to comply. Even then, force is only carried out by highly trained officers, and should be carefully monitored, proportionate, and used for the shortest possible period to ensure compliance." However, we only have their word for this as these flights take place in absolute secrecy and independent witnesses are hard to come by. For example, we do not even know if all the personnel involve were UKBA officers or if, as seems likely, some of them were in fact
* Armed Iraqi officials boarded the plane and refused to accept 34 'returned' Kurdish refugees.
** Those deported on the 9 June flight were held for a full week at the airport whilst their papers where 'checked'.
Charter flights have recently become most EU government's weapon of choice for forced removals. Previously forced removals and deportations were carried out on scheduled flights, mainly because it was far more cheaper - the government did not have to pay for landing rights or for the hire of aircraft. However, there are two problems with using charter flights - they only allow for removals in small numbers, regular paying customers taking up most of the other seats, but also those regular customers have also become recognised as being a 'weak link'. This is because the sight of someone being dragged onto a plane in shackles has often proved too much for some passengers and they have carried out spontaneous protests, often ending in the deportee being removed from the plane before they allowed it to take off.
Detainee support groups and protesters have recognised this and have successfully sought to exploit this, forcing a number of carriers to pull-out of hosting such deportations, and severely limiting the ability of UKBA to use commercial flights for removals. So much so in fact, that the representative of one private security firm responsible for escorting deportations in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee during an enquiry on deportations that if it was not for British Airways, the number of those deported on scheduled flights would be "virtually nil".
The advantage of using charter flights for deportations are in the numbers of refused asylum seekers that can be removed in one go and, most of all, the secrecy - there's no one around to see what goes on as most of those being removed are not going voluntarily in any sense of the word. Plus the very fact that it is a mass removal increases the chance of resistance by the deportees.
The disadvantages are the exorbitant costs: hiring the aircraft and pilots (tens of thousands of pounds) to fly; fuel for the 8,000km round trip; insurance cover for the trip to a war zone; landing fees; paying for 2-4 security guards per prisoner; etc. Not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. These high costs have forced this government, as it did the previous one, to go against its better judgement and get involved in negotiating EU-wide co-opertaion on joint deportation flights under the auspices of Frontex, thereby spreading out the costs and PR risks. However, this leaves the flights open to interference by the more 'liberal' EU politicians seeking more oversight of the deportation flights, even going as far as having human rights monitors on beard, no doubt something that will be strongly resisted by individual European governments.
See: Corporate Watch's Anti-Deportation Campaign Spotlight.