For many people who are forcibly removed from the UK, deportation is just the latest in a series of traumas. GM, who was deported last March, told VICE News what she experienced on the charter flight to Ghana. "We were treated like animals," she said.
Escort officers heavily outnumbered deportees on the flight, she claimed, and would violently restrain anyone who protested. "What they'll do is if you're making noise or you're shouting they will surround the individual," she said. "If the person behind me is making noise, they'll surround them and then we deportees can't see. And then after some time they call the doctor and I don't know if the doctor has sedated them or whatever... or if the person has done wrong, or if they're protesting, they're led away, and you never see them again."
F, who was deported to her native Morocco this summer, says she was one of those people aggressively forced into compliance. She came to the UK as a student, but sought asylum there after she was raped multiple times during a vacation in her home country. She learned her father had found out and planned to kill her to preserve family honor. "My father, he wants to kill me. He doesn't understand I'm innocent. He doesn't care if I was raped. He thinks I'm responsible," she said.
F's initial asylum claim was refused last fall, and she appealed the decision in the winter. A medical examination that F submitted with her appeal confirmed severe genital injuries consistent with repeated rape. In its refusal of F's appeal, the UK Home Office acknowledged these injuries but still suggested F was lying about her assault. "The Home Office Position is that we don't accept the rape occurred at all," said its representative at the appeal hearing. "Even if the Home Office did accept this, Morocco does provide punishment for men convicted of rape." Although the judge did believe F's account of rape, the appeal failed.
Images of Alan Kurdi — a Syrian toddler who drowned during his family's journey across the Mediterranean —recently spread awareness of the dangers that many migrants must brave to get to Europe. For those who make it to the UK but who are not given leave to remain, however, the journey back may also be perilous.
It took two attempts to deport F. The first time, this spring, she hid 10 pills in her underwear before being taken to the airport — she found them on the laundry room floor in the immigrant detention center where she was being held. Even though escort officers accompanied her to the toilet, she managed to avoid them long enough to swallow the pills in a suicide attempt, and her journey finished in hospital instead of in Morocco.
After this, she was held to await removal once again. In the interval, the organization Medical Justice attempted to intervene on her behalf. The doctor who examined her deemed her unfit to fly, saying she suffered from severe depression and PTSD, and that she was at high risk for self harm and suicide, especially if deported.
The Home Office ignored the doctor's urgent recommendation that F be given temporary leave to stay. When escort officers handcuffed her inside the plane out of the UK, she fought and screamed. She says one officer tried to break her finger. Another held her head down.
"I told him why you beat me? I'm not a criminal! I'm an asylum seeker! I need help," F said. "And [the officer] told me yes... you are a criminal! The government here refused your case. You have to go back to your country."
F said she could not understand how the UK could so easily dismiss her case. "Where are the human rights for women in UK?" she said. "I was raped."
F received counseling to deal with her trauma in the UK, but that stopped after her asylum application was refused and she was placed in an immigrant detention center. In Morocco, she says she is changing locations as often as possible to avoid being found by her father and is unable to get psychological help.
In response to an inquiry about F's case, a Home Office spokesperson said that they do not comment on individual cases. "Removal is an essential part of an effective immigration system," they added.
"We expect people with no right to be here to leave the country voluntarily… but where they do not, we will seek to enforce their departure. When someone is disruptive during removal, physical restraint is only ever used as a very last resort for the protection of other passengers, staff, and the person being removed."
This kind of violence gained media attention in 2010 when Jimmy Mubenga died during his deportation from the UK to Angola. Mubenga began to protest his removal during the flight and escort officers employed by the security company G4S outnumbered him three to one — before subduing him, restraining him with handcuffs behind his back, and forcing him to sit back down.
One officer was seated at either side of him, holding his torso bent forward over his seat, with another officer leaning over him from the row behind. Passengers as far as 14 rows away from Mubenga could hear him shouting "I can't breathe" and "You're killing me." His cries for help were ignored, and he then suffered cardiac arrest and died. Although an inquest found that Mubenga had been unlawfully killed, the three G4S officers in question were cleared of manslaughter charges.
While civilians witnessed Mubenga's death, many deportees do not have similar witnesses, as they are removed on charter flights like that which GM described. Phil Miller, who has researched charter plane deportations for Corporate Watch, said: "By hiring a private plane, the Home Office eliminates the possibility that any independent witnesses will see what happens during a deportation. This obviously puts deportees at greater risk of abuse by the security guards, who can use more violent restraint techniques without having to worry about holidaymakers filming them on their smart phones"
Even before Mubenga's death, advocacy organizations had warned the Home Office about dangerous deportation proceedings. A 2008 report called Outsourcing Abuse documented 300 alleged assaults during deportations from 2004 to 2008.
Despite the injuries documented in this report and public outcry after Mubenga's death, movement to regulate violent officer behavior was slow. It wasn't until summer 2014 that escort officers began to receive formal training in restraint techniques in confined spaces. The coroner in charge of Mubenga's inquest noted in 2013 that no significant changes had been introduced nearly three years after his death,
In a report published last June, the Chief Inspector of Prisons noted that officers treated deportees as commodities, and fell asleep on the job."It is almost inconceivable that in any other area of [prison] work we would find staff in charge of detainees at an identified risk of self-harm in a state of such exhaustion that they cannot avoid falling asleep." A job description for overseas escort officers working for G4S indeed suggests that officers are on duty 24 hours, and that they don't need previous experience working in the field.
Last spring, the Prisons Ombudsman chaired an independent panel that made recommendations regarding the use of force during deportations. The Home Office accepted several of these, and escort officers must now undertake more formalized training. However, Medical Justice's 2015 annual report notes that not all the panel's recommendations made it into policy. New regulations don't include important caveats that were outlined on certain techniques, such as the waist restraint belt.
Even if new training does reduce potentially lethal use of force on deportees, violent techniques are still legally authorized. Like F, many who fail to get asylum in the UK are nonetheless victims of violence and rape in their home countries. They may be the most likely to protest their removal, but also the most vulnerable to the traumatic experiences that violent deportations cause.
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