At around 5AM this morning, activists began a blockade of Hallmark Connect coach depot, just south of Heathrow airport, to demonstrate against the company's involvement in the transportation of detainees due to be deported on controversial charter flights.
In a letter addressed to Simon Lee Dunn, chief executive of Hallmark Connect, activists wrote, "It has come to our attention that your business is complicit in the brutal and violent deportation of asylum seekers in the UK," adding that they intended to remain at the coach depot "for as long as is possible, until [Hallmark] commits in a written statement to cease all involvement in deportations".
The activists – three of whom were positioned on top of tripods – were from Reclaim the Power (RtP), a grassroots network of people taking action for social, economic and environmental justice. The action comes as hundreds have assembled at a protest camp run by the group just north of London. Held each year in different locations across the country, the camp traditionally focuses on climate issues, but this year has diversified to focus on migrant justice.
"At the moment, in the UK, climate change and migrant justice are the two most pressing and urgent issues, so we wanted to put the spotlight on these issues," one activist – who asked not to be named – told me from their seat in the tripod this morning. "We've been working with amazing groups who have been campaigning for years on migrant justice in the UK, and we feel very inspired and proud to work with them and to take steps ourselves in helping fight the Hostile Environment."
One of those groups is the All African Women's group, a self-help body of women asylum seekers and immigrants, many of whom have been detained in Yarl's Wood detention centre.
Lucille from the group said: "As women, we suffer particularly from the hostile environment because we are poorer to begin with, are often traumatised from rape and other violence, and because we are often mothers with responsibility for other precious human beings. We face a sexist, racist Home Office and companies that profit from deportation. We all have a right to be here and to be treated with respect. We demand an end to the hostile environment, to detention, destitution and deportations, and an end to the separation of families."
Introduced in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, the Hostile Environment is a set of restrictive and far-reaching anti-immigration policy and legislation that has seen an unprecedented expansion of powers for the Home Office, as well as increases in the use of chartered deportation flights. It was under the Hostile Environment that the Windrush scandal occurred.
Those due to be deported are held in detention centres across the country, many of which have been exposed as having a severe problem with cases of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by the private security companies who run them. In the case of Yarl's Wood detention centre, run by Serco, access was denied to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, who was seeking to investigate such claims at the site.
Removal instructions for deportation are given by the Home Office, sometimes with mere days notice, often to those still awaiting the outcome of appeals. The deportation process is outsourced to private companies, with the security and escort contract – currently operated by Mitie – worth an estimated £552 million over ten years. The mass deportations are conducted from small airports, such as Biggin Hill, or military bases like Brize Norton, and are carried out under the cover of darkness.
Concerns have been raised over the deportations, with many reporting the use of excessive force and inhumane treatment throughout. In 2010, Angolan detainee Jimmy Mubenga died on a British Airways flight after he was restrained by G4S guards to such an extent that he asphyxiated. The guards were later cleared of manslaughter.
In a report released in June, the UN special rapporteur on racism concluded that the UK must immediately abandon its Hostile Environment policy, stating, "The hostile environment policy has had an impact not only on irregular immigrants, but also on racial and ethnic minority individuals with regular immigration status, many of whom are British citizens or are entitled to British citizenship."
Private coach companies, like Hallmark, are chartered to transport detainees often hundreds of miles to the remote sites from which deportation flights depart.
In February of 2018, a coach transporting detainees from Harmondsworth detention centre to a deportation flight due to leave to Pakistan caught fire. Guards from private security firm Tascor allegedly handcuffed each detainee as fire spread up the back of the vehicle and fumes filled the cabin. One detainee suffered a fractured wrist as they were finally led from the coach, which exploded just minutes later. A spokesman for Capita, which owns Tascor, said at the time that it was "factually inaccurate that when the fire was identified the individuals were then handcuffed".
In 2017, it was reported by the Independent Monitoring Board that those picked up first spent the longest on these kind of coach journeys – just over seven-and-a-half hours in some cases. According to the Corporate Watch report on charter flights, private security escorts who accompany those due to deported are allowed to get off and stretch their legs, while detainees remained penned in on the coaches until they are "processed".
Despite a few scuffles with a small number of disgruntled employees this morning, including one incident in which protesters were rammed with a van as they tried to prevent access the site through a small gap in the blockade, overwhelmingly the response to the demonstration was positive. Demonstrators were offered tea and breakfast, as employees complained of not having had a pay rise in 11 years.
"We are here today to put the spotlight on Hallmark Connect, and demand they end their complicity in these violent deportations carried out under the Hostile Environment policies of the Home Office," said one activist this morning. "We believe these policies to be racist, brutal and violent, and are tearing our communities apart. Often people deported under these policies don't have their claims heard; they are deported to places where their lives are threatened. These people are our friends, they are our neighbours, they are our families, so these deportations must stop, and Hallmark must stop being complicit."
Hallmark Coaches is owned by Rotala, which holds local authority bus contracts across the country, trading as Diamond North West in Manchester and Diamond Buses in West Midlands. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Today, Reclaim the Power are gearing up for a day of action against the Hostile Environment, with activists planning to demonstrate outside the Home Office this morning, putting the new Home Secretary Priti Patel "on notice" to dismantle the Hostile Environment by October or face further actions in the autumn.
According to the RtP media team, Hallmark have cut down their own fences to allow coaches in and out – but the blockade continues.