Two people, including a MULE editor, were detained by anti-terror police at Heathrow Airport on January 6 after they raised objections to a deportation taking place on their flight.
The pair, Matthew Taylor and Andrew Bowman, chose to leave the Virgin Atlantic flight for Nairobi in protest, shortly before takeoff. They claim the deportee, whose name is unknown, was being forcibly restrained by several plain clothes immigration officers, and was crying out for help from passengers. Having disembarked, they were held under the Terrorism Act by armed police before being questioned by Special Branch.
“The guy was shouting that he would commit suicide if he was sent back to Kenya”, said Bowman, “we took a stand in a peaceful manner, but were treated as if we were trying to blow up the plane.”
With the government seeking to increase removals of ‘illegal’ immigrants and failed asylum seekers, commercial airlines are being contracted to carry deportees and their guards with economy class passengers. Virgin Airlines are heavily involved in the practice, and according to human rights organisations have a history of aiding deportations to unsafe countries. After a campaign by anti-deportation activists to stop the removal of Kemi Ayinde to Nigeria, Home Office plans were scuppered when Virgin Nigeria bowed to pressure and refused to take part in the deportation.
“We do not tolerate the inhumane treatment of any person onboard any of our flights,” a Virgin Nigeria spokesperson said at the time. However, Virgin Airlines continue to help the Home Office with their deportations. Bowman told MULE: “Both of us are opposed to deportations as a political principle. We know that many of the thousands of people deported from the UK each year face immediate peril at their destinations. And we also know that Kenya has a very sketchy human rights record.”
They first noticed the man hidden at the back of the plane, and say he was handcuffed, pinned down by guards, and showing signs of distress. Cabin crew attempted to assure them that “they normally stop screaming once we take off”, implying this was a normal occurrence on Virgin flights. The immigration officers claimed Taylor and Bowman were “threatening them” and attempting to “disrupt a government operation”. They told the men that if they did not “shut up and sit down” they would “get the police on them”.
“I expected people to join us, but everyone seemed stunned. If most people saw a man being roughed up like that on the street, they’d do something,” said Bowman.
On several occasions passenger revolts have led to the cancellation of the deportation attempts, with the pilot bowing to pressure and demanding the immigrant be taken off the plane. This time the deportee was taken to Kenya and the uncertain fate that awaits him there.