More than forty people, many of them Iraqis who were on last week’s returned charter flight, have gone on hunger strike to demand their immediate release from detention.
The hunger strikers are being held in Brook House immigration removal centre, near Gatwick airport. As well as Iraqis, people from Afghanistan, Algeria, Nigeria and Jamaica have been refusing food since Sunday.
In a statement, the hunger strikers said: ‘We are going on hunger strike until they release us. We have been in detention centres for months and years and our cases have not been handled professionally. Most of us are being falsely removed to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, which are clearly war zones. Most of us have families in the UK. What are we supposed to do? Leave them behind or take them with us right into the middle of a war zone to be killed? The immigration laws and policies are clearly not fair and the only way you will find this out is by visiting us here in detention.’
A failed expulsion attempt
Some of the hunger strikers were aboard last week’s failed deportation flight to Iraq – the first attempt by the government since the outbreak of war in 2003 to forcibly return refused asylum seekers to Baghdad. Of the forty-four men on board, flanked by over a hundred security staff, only eight were admitted by Iraqi authorities.
There are conflicting reports as to what happened in Baghdad airport. Some suggest that those onboard were asked if they wished to return – and only those who agreed were admitted. Other reports maintain that a discrepancy in the paperwork led to questions over the deportees’ true identity and nationality. An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that not all men on board the flight were Iraqis – others were allegedly of Egyptian or Palestinian origin. He criticised the British government’s failure to consult with the Iraqi consulate in London before attempting to return the refused asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, the commander of Baghdad airport claimed to have no prior knowledge of who was on board the Air Italy-operated plane, specifically chartered by the British government. A spokesperson for Air Italy has since categorically stated that they will ‘refuse’ to carry out any more forced expulsion flights for the British government and that this was their ‘first and last experience’ of such flights.
The remainder of those on board the flight were all returned to the UK via Italy, during which time some of the men have made allegations that they were violently assaulted and racially abused by the British security guards, from security firm G4S, accompanying them.
‘S’, who has asked not to be named, told the Coalition to Stop Deportations to Iraq: ‘They got my head in a headlock, beat it, put a blanket over it, pushed me down to the floor then dragged me around. I’ve had bad headaches since, I can’t move my neck properly, I have swollen wrists and I can’t sleep. They were worse than Saddam Hussein’s men.’
Campaigners claim that at least one man is still being held in solitary confinement in Brook House after he protested and was allegedly assaulted during the return flight’s stopover in Italy.
It has previously been alleged that on a mass deportation flight to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2008, deportees were beaten by the security guards, with one man’s head hit against a window of the plane, smashing it. The flight was cancelled.
First attempted deportation to Baghdad
Last week’s flight was the first attempt at forcible return to southern Iraq in six years. According to Home Office figures, 632 people were forcibly returned to the KRG region in the north between 2005 and 2008. The International Federation of Iraqi Refugees estimates that the figure, with monthly charter flights returning fifty people at a time since the beginning of 2009, currently stands at approximately 900.
The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Its guidance states: ‘The situation remains highly dangerous with a continuing high threat of terrorism throughout the country.’
The Home Affairs select committee, chaired by Labour MP Keith Vaz, will quiz the chief executive of the UK Border Agency Lin Homer in the next few weeks over the botched deportation attempt.
Earlier this week, a British-chartered joint Ango-French flight to Afghanistan forcibly returned over twenty refused asylum seekers.
A demonstration was held outside parliament on Saturday in protest at the forced deportation to Iraq and an Early Day Motion has been signed by MPs. Another demonstration is due to be held on Monday at the Home Office (see link below).
Read an IRR News Story: ‘Deportation flight goes ahead – without France’
Read an IRR News Story: ‘The removals lottery’