What happens when UK deports failed asylum-seekers

On a sunny April morning earlier this year,
a plane took off from Heathrow’s northern runway at a little after 6.30am and
turned towards the South coast. Unlike other flights, this one didn’t appear on
any of the airport’s departure boards. Nor were those on board holidaymakers or
businessmen.

Instead, this secret flight carried 15
failed asylum-seekers, who were being forcibly removed from the United Kingdom
by 45 private security guards. One of those on board was Yves Yitgna Njitchoua,
a 34-year-old from Cameroon. “People were screaming and crying because they
feared for their lives,” he said in an interview with The Independent. Mr.
Njitchoua says his wrists and legs were handcuffed for the whole flight. He was
allowed to go to the toilet only with the door open and four guards standing
outside.

Such flights are being used by the UK
Border Agency with increasing frequency to return failed asylum-seekers. They
are shrouded in secrecy, but an investigation by The Independent has put
together details of the process, including the companies and airlines involved,
the conditions on board, the techniques permitted, and the contracts of those
paid to escort deportees. Though the records of activists, charities,
befrienders, and the testimony of deportees themselves, it is possible to build
up a picture of chartered and scheduled removal from Britain.

The Independent has found that:

British Airways, BMI and other leading
airlines are among those paid to transport failed asylum-seekers;

A criminal record, even for assault, is not
a barrier to someone becoming a private-security escort;

Escorts are authorised to use a variety of
techniques to restrain deportees including a ‘Goose Neck’ lock and a procedure
called ‘Nose Control’;

Escorts have a financial incentive to
ensure removals are successful because the majority of their income is an
hourly wage.

One man’s story

Yves Yitgna Njitchoua arrived in Britain
and applied for asylum in 2005, claiming he had suffered persecution and been
tortured by the police in Cameroon because of his political views. His brother,
a local councillor, had been killed because of his involvement in the
opposition party.

A medical report compiled for his asylum
claim found evidence that he had been tortured on several occasions and had
suffered scarring from cigarette burns as well as other injuries. A UK
immigration judge ordered his removal, however.

An attempt to deport him was made on 9
April. He was put on a Kenya Airways flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, from
where he was scheduled to fly to Cameroon. He was accompanied by a male and a
female escort officer, and a male medical escort; all three were provided by
the private security company Group 4 Securicor.

In an interview Mr. Njitchoua said: “At
Heathrow I explained why I couldn’t go back and [one of the escorts] said: ‘For
us it doesn’t matter if you don’t go to Cameroon but if we don’t travel to
Kenya, we won’t get paid so let’s go there and if you refuse to go to Cameroon
we’ll bring you back.’”

In a formal complaint to the UK Border
Agency after the removal attempt, lawyers wrote: “They told him that if he went
to Kenya they as escorts would earn more money. They told him that there was a
13-hour transit period in Kenya and that if he still did not want to return to
Cameroon, they led him to believe that there was a prospect that he could
return to the United Kingdom.”

After flying through the night, Mr.
Njitchoua spent the day in Nairobi airport transit lounge, and at around 5pm
the escorts asked him to move to the gate for the flight to Cameroon; he
refused. Accounts of what happened next differ.

According to reports filed by the three
Group 4 Securicor escorts, Mr. Njitchoua became physically violent and punched
the walls, shouting that somebody “will die today”. Kenyan police were called.

Mr. Njitchoua claims that one of the
escorts went to speak to the Kenyan police: “She came back with a crowd of
police officers and they told me you have to move to the gate and they began
dragging me by my clothes. They handcuffed my right hand, then tried to join
both hands behind my back but I just tried to use all my strength to not allow
them to bring my hands together.”

According to both accounts, Mr. Njitchoua
was taken to an immigration office where his handcuffs remained on for over an
hour. The flight to Cameroon was suffering technical problems and had not yet
departed, but the pilot refused to carry Mr. Njitchoua because of his
distressed state. Mr. Njitchoua and his escorts spent the night on airport
benches before flying back on a Virgin Atlantic plane the following morning.

Four days after the incident he was
examined by a doctor from the charity Medical Justice who found bruising to the
face and ribs, evidence that Mr Njitchoua had been held “tightly around his
neck” and a loss of sensation to his right wrist. Dr. Charmian Goldwyn
concluded: “Overall the distribution of the injuries, the severity of the wrist
and facial injuries are highly consistent with Mr. Njitchoua’s account of
assault in Nairobi Airport and an innocent explanation is unlikely.”

Other, similar stories

For several years, campaigners have heard
similar stories from deportees. While there is no bonus payment to escorts for
successful removals, The Independent can confirm that many escorts have a
financial incentive to ensure a removal is successful, because the majority of
their wages (on top of what a Group 4 source called a “quite low basic salary”)
is paid by the hour.

While an overseas removal might last two or
three days, an aborted attempt can involve only a few hours work and therefore
far less pay, a Group 4 source acknowledged. When asked if the financial
incentive had any effect on the measures taken by escorts to ensure a removal
was successful, a Group 4 spokeswoman said: “Absolutely not. Everything is done
professionally and above board. This set-up just helps us to have a flexible
workforce.”

A report by the Institute of Race Relations
in 2005 documented 11 deaths during removals conducted by European countries
since 1991. It noted that in each case the deportee suffocated while “control
and restraint” methods were being used. The Council of the European Union’s
guidelines for removal by air state: “Coercive measures… should not
compromise the ability of the returnee to breathe normally.”

A formal complaint was made on 19 April on
Mr. Njitchoua’s behalf by Refugee and Migrant Justice, a specialist charity
which provided legal advice to asylum-seekers before going into administration
last month.

One week later a UK Government lawyer wrote
back with the results of an investigation into the incident.

They concluded that Mr Njitchoua’s account
was “entirely fictitious” and that he was “abusive from the start, made
sustained threats of violence and death to his escorts, and carried out his
threats of violence by attacking them using a metal barrier rail as a club”.

Airlines allegedly involved

The Independent can also reveal that some
of Britain’s biggest airlines are profiting from the transportation of failed
asylum-seekers.

British Airways, BMI, and Virgin Atlantic
have each transported failed asylum-seekers and their escorts on normal
commercial flights in the past six months. British authorities are also
believed to have chartered aircraft from Titan Airways, which describes itself
as “specialising in VIP and corporate travel”, and small foreign firms such as
Hamburg International.

In 2009 there were 64 charter flights from
the UK deporting nearly 2,000 people to countries including Afghanistan, Iraq,
Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Information released to The
Independent under the Freedom of Information Act shows that charter flights
cost the UK Border Agency more than 10m British pounds in the past financial
year. In the same period, the cost of removing people on scheduled flights
increased to 18m British pounds.

A total of 6,855 people have been forcibly
removed on commercial flights and specially chartered planes in the past year.
The removals between 2005 and April 2010 cost almost 110m.

All of the airlines mentioned above were
asked if they wanted to comment. Only two replied. A spokesman for BA said: “We
are legally obliged to remove ‘deportees’ from the UK if instructed by the Home
Office to do so. If we refuse to comply, we would be in contravention of
paragraph 10 (i) of Schedule 2 of the 1971 Immigration Act.”

Janis Vanags, vice-president for
communications for Air Baltic, said: “In general, we are non-discriminatory. We
are a means of transport so we don’t decide who can’t go on our planes unless
they are acting in a specific way that poses safety risks.” He added: “We
haven’t had issues with it before but when we sign a contract in future we
might consider it in more detail.”

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