Photo courtesy of Stop Charter Flights
On Tuesday night 17 activists made their way airside at Stansted Airport and blockaded a Home Office privately chartered deportation flight. Live-streaming their action to the Facebook page Stop Charter Flights, the protesters locked themselves to the wheel of a plane set to remove around 50 people to Nigeria and Ghana.
End Deportations, a coalition of campaigns fighting against immigration detention and deportation, took responsibility for organising the protest alongside supporters from groups like Plane Stupid and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.
The government's use of private planes to remove people en masse from the UK has only recently become more widely discussed. Lily May, one of the campaigners with End Deportations, spoke to me about what they are doing to expose and resist these flights.
"A charter flight is a privately chartered flight by the Home Office – so by the UK government – intended to deport normally between 50 to 100 people at one given time to another country," she explained. "They were originally set up around 2001 with the idea of being used for people who resisted a lot on commercial flights. Instead, they would charter a private flight where, obviously, they could be more restrained, and more extreme measures [could be] taken to ensure that someone is deported. But we know that that's not how people are gathered for charter flights. They do not choose the people who are most difficult; they choose people based on their perceived nationality, regardless of what stage their case is at."
A Freedom of Information request revealed that last year 1,536 people were removed on chartered deportation flights to Albania, Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana. End Deportations also found that the average cost of these flights was £5,210 per person. For the most part the Home Office chooses to shroud these removals in secrecy, but anti-detention and deportation organisations such as SOAS Detainee Support and the Unity Centre have monitored and tracked their operation in order to be able to intervene, as activists did on Tuesday.
"A charter flight was scheduled for Tuesday night, deporting about 50 people as part of what they call Operation Majestic, which leaves bi-monthly to Nigeria and Ghana," said Lily. "It was scheduled to depart at 22:30 from an undisclosed location, but a lot of work by campaigning groups revealed that this was Stansted. So people went to the airport and they blockaded and locked themselves to the plane – the specific plane that was deporting people, not the runway. The aim was to stop people from being deported into danger and away from their families."
"People who aren't in detention and aren't facing deportation can risk their safety for the empowerment and ultimate liberation of people who aren't able to."
Detained Voices, a blog distributing the stories, experiences and demands of those held in UK immigration detention centres shared the worries of one woman set to be removed on Tuesday's flight. A lesbian woman being returned to Nigeria after a failed asylum claim, she spoke of the danger she faced, saying, "My ex-husband said he knows I am being deported next week. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me."
For now, the action by End Detention was successful at stopping these deportations. Lily May explained to me how unprecedented that is: "As far as I know this has never happened before, that a charter flight has been stopped in this form, collectively, rather than individual people being taken off the flight. That's really incredible. We're seeking to end mass deportation so we will continue to take action until that happens."
But beyond blocking this week's charter flight, campaigners have much more to do if they hope to end the practice altogether. Although clandestine, an entire industry now exists to operate these government-sponsored flights. The Home Office relies on private security firms like Tascor, who currently hold the contract to "escort" those being deported, and airlines such as Titan Airways, from whom this week's flight and others were chartered. Lily tells me that targeting and placing pressure on these companies is important, but that direct action seems to be the most effective method of getting things done.
"I think, for me, it needs to be a collective resistance alongside those who are most affected. That's how change happens," she said. "People who aren't in detention and aren't facing deportation can risk their safety for the empowerment and ultimate liberation of people who aren't able to. For sure there are many different ways, like targeting the companies involved, but this is the only time we have shut down a charter flight, so direct action does seem to be effective and necessary."
Though coach loads of people were saved from deportation, activists had put themselves at risk. I asked Lily May what had happened to the protesters and she told me 17 people had been arrested – all the protesters and two journalists. However, she said it's a price worth paying: "People's lives were at risk, and that was a big motivation for doing it. A lot of people were facing death upon being deported."