Yesterday a coalition of activists from ecological and anti-deportation groups joined forces on the runway at Stansted airport to prevent a charter flight taking off, bound for Nigeria and Ghana with people who were being forcibly removed from this country and many of whom feared for their lives and had claimed asylum here.
Last night the activists stormed the commercial runaway at Stansted and locked themselves to the wheel of the plane; this is the first time this kind of direct action has successfully stopped a mass deportation charter flight. The three groups involved were Activists from End Deportations – a campaign group fighting for the abolition of deportations and detention centres; Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSMigrants) – an LGBT+ group inspired by the 1980s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners; who take creative action to stand in solidarity with migrant communities and Plane Stupid, the latter being an ecological group whose previous actions have been against the aviation industry. Police say 17 people were arrested.
Since 2002 the Home Office has organised mass deportations – largely to former British colonies – every few months. These flights are notoriously secretive and devoid of scrutiny, departing from undisclosed locations in the middle of the night. Every single deportee is escorted and shackled in a seat between two guards, who regularly employ the same violent restraints that caused the death of Jimmy Mubenga in 2010. On a charter flight to Jamaica in 2016, men reported being treated ‘like animals,’ strapped with tight body belts and unable to move throughout the entire 9-hour journey.
To fill seats on the plane, large numbers of people are rounded up and detained before being sent “back”, in many cases to a country they have never visited or lived in. “Reserve” deportees are taken to the airport to fill up the places of individuals whose lawyers are successful in making last-minute challenges. The people who are ‘reserves’ are not told whether they are being deported on that flight, right up until they are either put on the plane, or the plane departs.
Mass deportation charter flights are part of Theresa May’s stated mission to create a “hostile environment” for migrants in the UK. Last year, over 1,536 people were deported from the UK via mass deportation at average cost of £5,210 per person. To this end, the UK government has pushed through a raft of policies which obstruct and dissuade migrant communities from accessing the education, health and housing services that they are by law entitled to use.
People are given little advance notice of their removal – often meaning they have just a few days to fight for their right to stay in the UK. Cuts to legal aid means that the vast majority of those with children or partners in the UK who have valid human rights-based claims to stay can’t afford to access legal help.
There are numerous documented cases of people with valid asylum claims being wrongly put on mass deportation planes; because of grave administrative errors. One person deported on the last charter flight to Nigeria in January 2017 had not even received a decision on his asylum claim, making his deportation unlawful. Both his parents were killed by Boko Haram and he fears the same will happen to him.
Some of the people on the flight have been residing for decades in Britain with established livelihoods, spouses and children, many of whom have not been able to afford the extortionate legal fees required to regularise their citizenship status in the UK.
Sam Jones from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants said:
“For too long the government has kept these brutal mass deportation flights under wraps. The UK government is snatching people from their beds in the dead of night, handcuffing them and forcing them onto planes with no witnesses. I don’t think that’s the kind of society most of us want to live in. We must stop these violent mass deportations now.”
Just over a year ago activists from Plane Stupid were convicted for their part in the Heathrow 13 action, when the northern runway at Heathrow was occupied, resulting in the cancellation of 25 flights, as part of a protest against the construction of the proposed third runway.
In a released statement they explained their reasons for getting involved, that they do not see the fight against migration as any different from the fight against airport expansion and both are part of a process of ‘exploitation and displacement’ and part of the oppression that affects us all. They also point to more personal reasons for getting involved in saying that “Above all, however, the main reason we did this was because we were asked to. We have direct contact with people affected by this particular charter flight, who feared for their lives if they were sent to Nigeria and Ghana last night. Acting in solidarity and as allies to these people, we took their lead, as they are the ones most directly affected by this violence. We hope that our action prevented these cases from happening, but also that it acts as a catalyst in the campaign to end charter flights once and for all”.
A family member of someone due to be deported said:
“I wanna say a big thank you. Because of you maybe my children will be able to see their father again who was meant to be on that flight. Last night I was in bits but today I can try and smile. They don’t realise how much they are ripping people from their lives and their dignity, and when you look for help nobody is there to help you. I cried myself to sleep last night because of my children’s dad being taking away from them, I am British, my children are British but our voices are not being heard by anyone.”
In their statement Plane Stupid rightly say they are not a single issue campaign because “we do not lead single issue lives.” This coming together of different groups in solidarity for others and taking direct action against the state is an example of the type cooperation and unity that those who seek to oppress us fear most and cannot understand. Let us hope this is the first of many.