London, United Kingdom – Iesha fights back tears as she watches the demonstrators walk through Brixton, the multi-ethnic area of southeast London that has been her home since she was 15.
“They took my babies’ dad on one of those flights,” she says.
Her partner, Leon, was deported from the UK to Jamaica in 2016. “This charter thing is wrong. I’m a mother of five kids and my partner has been here 14 years.”
The Brixton march is part of more than two weeks of action against charter flights which forcibly remove migrants from the UK to countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana and Pakistan.
Protests are being held between January 9 and 25 in communities and outside embassies across the UK, as well as in Jamaica and Nigeria. Campaigners are also taking aim at the security companies that are providing escort services for these flights.
Between 2001 and 2014 nearly 30,000 people were removed from the UK on charter flights. These can stop off in multiple countries with up to 80 people on board, including failed asylum seekers, people with criminal convictions and people whose visas have expired. Past charter flight destinations have included the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq .
For the Home Office, charter flights offer a “practical means of returning significant volumes in a controlled environment”. While people are also removed from the UK on commercial flights, with other travellers, these private flights are paid for by the government and are exclusively for those being forcibly removed from the country.
Iesha explains that Leon had been trying for nine years to secure his immigration status in the UK and was detained twice in that time. Most people who have applied for asylum, or have been released from detention on bail must check in regularly at their local Home Office reporting centre or a police station.
But, although Leon had been in the country for 14 years, he was detained when he last reported to the centre. A week later, Iesha says, he was on a flight bound for Jamaica.
“He phoned me to say he was on a plane, handcuffed. He had been allowed to phone me to say goodbye,” Iesha says. “I went into labour the next day … my baby wasn’t due for another four weeks.”
Leon still hasn’t seen his child and Iesha says his other two young children are struggling at school. “They’ve broken my kids’ hearts and mine,” she says. “I’ve been left to do this by myself.”
Deported after serving time
In Nigeria, another deportee, Larry, who doesn’t want to use his full name, is trying to make a new life for himself. The 30-year-old was transported from the UK on a charter flight in July 2015. His London accent attests to the years he spent in the UK, which amounted to nearly half his life.
He had served a short prison sentence in the UK for conspiracy to defraud, but had been released on bail. While attending a weekly signing as part of his bail conditions, he was detained and eventually deported on a charter flight. His wife and eight-year-old daughter are still in the UK.
“I’d served my sentence,” he says. “That was my first offence. Shouldn’t I be given another chance?” L arry says from the country he hardly knows and where he has no family.
“There were actually a lot of people who had nowhere to go,” he explains. “I thought it was pretty bad for me but then I started hearing people’s stories – people who hadn’t been there since they were four years old …”
In a statement explaining its policies, a Home Office spokesman told Al Jazeera: “We are clear we will enforce the departure of anyone with no legal basis to remain in the UK who refuses to leave voluntarily. This includes illegal immigrants and foreign national offenders convicted of offences such as murder and rape.”
Jasmine Sallis is part of Roots to Return , an organisation set up in September 2016 that o ffers practical support to people trying to appeal against deportations that have already taken place and support to families that have been separated.
Sallis says that, in her experience, not all the criminal convictions are as serious as the ones cited by the Home Office.
“It could just be people who have worked with fake documents or committed driving offences,” she says. “Surely these people could be rehabilitated? It’s hardly terrorist activity.
“We feel like its quite a tactical thing; it helps them fill up the charter flights. It’s a way of getting people out the country quicker and easier,” says Sallis.
Abuses on flights
Human rights organisations have accused the government of deporting people without proper access to justice and say that many people who have been removed on charter flights have never had a criminal conviction .
Larry, the Nigerian deportee, describes his flight as “something like I’ve never experienced before”.
“There were people shouting. When I walked into the flight I saw a guy that was pretty much naked and he was throwing up on the floor, peeing on himself. He was tied to the chair, he could barely move. It was inhumane. They were pinning people to the floor, people trying to struggle.”
Sallis expalins that “v iolence on these flights is really hidden because there are no members of the public,” i n contrast with commercial flights, where there are “a whole plane load of people who are witnessing how people are getting treated”.
While there has been some documentation of charter flights from independent inspectors, campaigners argue that this does not happen often enough. Many reports mention the lack of dignity for passengers, particularly not being able to close the door while using the toilet.
A report from a charter flight to Jamaica in 2011 found that some escort staff swore at detainees and used racist and deragatory language.
A 2014 inspection report on a charter flight from Stansted airport to Islamabad, Pakistan, found that staff made animal noises at detainees and fell asleep when in charge of someone who was deemed to be at risk of self-harm.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a Home Office spokesman said it was addressing these concerns. “Detention and removal are also essential parts of effective immigration controls and it is vital these are carried out with dignity and respect. We take the welfare of our detainees very seriously and Immigration Enforcement charter flights are regularly monitored by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring Board.”
‘Deport first, appeal later ‘
The secretive nature of charter flights, including the difficulty of finding out who is on board and where and when flights will take off, makes it difficult for lawyers and campaigners to take action .
In some cases, lawyers have been able to get people removed from charter flights they have been booked on, but once their client has been deported, things become more challenging.
Many people are given the right to appeal against their removal once they have left the UK, reflecting the UK government’s ” deport first, appeal later ” policy. They argue that an out-of-country appeal meets the requirements of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act – respect for family and private life – but campaigners say that in practice these appeals are very difficult to undertake.
Hilary Brown is the managing director of the legal firm Virgo Consultancy. Some of her clients were among those deported on a charter flight to Jamaica last year.
“The immigration rules have changed so much now that if you have been removed, at a cost to the public purse, unless there are absolute extenuating circumstances, you face a ban on coming back for a period of time. That can be from one year to 10 years,” she explains.
“People will leave the UK once they are at the end of their appeal rights and if you allow them the dignity to buy their own ticket and leave of their own volition then when they make attempts to come back to their family, their partner, their children, they don’t have to go through the additional indignity of being separated by time as well as distance,” Brown says.
Brown says the logistics of out-of-country appeals can be very difficult as the person is in one country while their hearing, lawyer and potentially evidence is in another.
“There’s all of these difficulties about gathering the evidence, going through the evidence, getting statements prepared,” she explains. “You’ve compiled the evidence with someone who could perhaps be on the other side of the world.”
Sallis points out that people struggle with employment and practicalities such as access to the internet or phones when they arrive. These are all things that make carrying out an appeal more difficult.
“We had to send money to some of them just to use a fax machine,” Brown tells Al Jazeera.
“The families, they really suffer – the people I’ve spoken to have become really disillusioned with the UK. They’re often UK citizens who are born here and they just don’t believe that it’s happening.”
For Larry, watching his family back in the UK is a struggle. He says that the situation is taking its toll on his daughter.
“Every time I speak to her it’s very difficult,” he explains. “She’s got a disorder that means that whenever she’s aggravated and angry she pulls out her hair.”
He can tell his wife is holding back from telling him how hard things are. “She works and looks after our daughter but it’s very difficult. I t’s s omething that two people are meant to be doing together but the other person is now doing [it] alone,” Larry says.
“I’ve heard that someone I met on the plane committed suicide. You’re tempted every now and then but if you know you’ve got family somewhere that you might not end up seeing again then it keeps you going.”