The Home Office deports thousands of migrants on secret flights from a private jet centre

New Statesman: Some passengers will have been living in the UK since childhood; others might never have set foot in the country to which they are being deported.


People are deported on night-time charter flights. Photo: Flickr/STML, by James Bridle

In late July, we received word that two Home Office charter flights were set to deport hundreds of men to West Africa, on the evening of the 28th. One was scheduled to leave from Stansted Airport, so we went to have a look.

At Stansted, where a charter flight is set to deport scores of migrants en masse tonight.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

The people being deported are people who, for various reasons, have been denied the right to stay in the UK. They could be asylum seekers whose claims have been refused, people who were living and working in Britain without the correct documentation, or people with overseas citizenship who committed criminal offences and were being deported at the end of their sentence. The Home Office has run over 800 such flights since 2001.

Between 2001 and March 2014, around 30,000 people were deported from the UK via secret flights

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

The charter flights, which are an alternative to placing deportees on commercial flights alongside other passengers, round up large groups of people from the same region and make several stops.

According to Glasgow Unity Centre, tonight’s flight will be stopping in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone & Gabon

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

It’s difficult to know who exactly is on the flights, but some will have been living in the UK since childhood. Others might never have set foot in the country to which they are being deported.

Some of the men on the flight are being made to leave behind partners and children.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

Women are deported, too.

It’s also difficult to know if the deportees have been given due legal process. A key element of the government’s immigration detention system was recently found by the High Court to be so “structurally unfair” as to be unlawful.

At Stansted, the charter flights depart from the private jet centre – well away from the public airport terminals.

The private jet centre is for two kinds of people: the super-rich, and deportees. I see Harrods Aviation, Qatar Airways & a charter flight.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

For the private companies that facilitate such flights, deportation is part of their business. If you’ve ever taken a package holiday, you might even have sat on the plane that was being used this evening. Coaches bring the deportees to the airport, where they are transferred on to the waiting plane

The deportees were escorted by guards employed by a private security company that is contracted by the Home Office to handle deportations

An inquest found a culture of “pervasive racism” among company employees.

Also please read @larapawson‘s essay for @NewHumanist on Jimmy Mubenga, killed during an attempted deportation.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

Watching the flight with me was James Bridle, whose artwork “Seamless Transitions” explores Britain’s hidden spaces of immigration detention and deportation.

As we watched, through a fence in the airport car park, flight preparations continued.

Six air crew just arrived – two pilots, four stewards (men and women), pulling their wheelie suitcases and chatting happily.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

We were in an area where plane spotters are normally allowed to stand and take photos, but after a few hours our presence became unwelcome.

Just been stopped by police.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

A police officer told us that while we weren’t doing anything wrong, we were on private land and that airport security wanted us to leave. Talking into his radio, he referred to the deportation flight as a “repat” flight.

All ok now but kicked off airport land so trying to find another vantage point.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 28, 2015

There is a spot on public land where you can watch planes take off. We waited until the small hours of the morning before the plane taxied to the runway. As it prepared to take off, several security vans parked directly in front of us with their lights flashing, which made it difficult to take photos in the dark.

It’s gone. Take-off was at 1:14am.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 29, 2015

Flight Radar 24 is a free website where you can track the progress of flights in real-time.

It’s gone. Take-off was at 1:14am.

— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) July 29, 2015

Our flight crossed Europe and the Mediterranean during the night, making two stops in West Africa – Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana – the next morning. It returned to the UK that afternoon, landing at Gatwick. We don’t know what happened to the people who were on the flight.

Daniel Trilling is an editor at New Humanist. The original Storify of his visit, from which this article is taken, appears hereYou can follow his work on refugees in Europe here.

The rest of James Bridle’s photographs are on Flickr.