On Mar. 28, 2017, 17 people locked themselves on to a deportation charter flight at London Stansted Airport in an act of civil disobedience that kept the plane grounded. U.K. authorities were attempting to deport 59 people to Ghana and Nigeria, and the protesters' motivation was to safeguard these people's lives while resisting Britain's crackdown on migrant rights.
One year later, the Stansted 17 are being charged under anti-terrorism laws, with court hearings to begin this Monday, March 19, for activists from End Deportations, Lesbians and Gays Support Migrants and Plane Stupid.
Deportation Can Mean a Death Sentence
"My ex-husband said he knows I am being deported next week. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me," said one women who was due for deportation on last year's flight.
The woman, who is a lesbian, had heard through family connections about the intentions of her former husband, whom she was forced to marry. In Nigeria, homosexuals can be arrested, and homophobic violence is commonplace there, as it is in Ghana. Even the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office warns LGBT travelers about facing possible repression in Ghana and Nigeria.
Britain sells itself as a country open to LGBT people, but it fails to apply this tolerance to refugees. The latest Stonewall Report found that gay asylum seekers often faced the same problems they were trying to escape from. The U.K. has even officially told people to "pretend to be straight" in order to survive in Afghanistan.
Another person on last year's grounded flight had come to the U.K. after fleeing torture in Ivory Coast. The U.K. was sending him to Ghana, and from there it was possible he would be returned against his will to Ivory Coast.
"The doctor in the detention centre made a Rule 35 report that said I have been tortured in Ivory Coast but they did not release me from detention, wrote the torture victim. "[My] church in Manchester found me a lawyer, who sent faxes to the detention centre to stop my deportation, but the guards did not give it to me. I did not get the documents from my lawyer until this morning."
No one with a Rule 35 report should be detained, according to U.K. government rules.
U.K.. Home Office statistics show around 40 percent of people on forced repatriation flights are ultimately reprieved from taking the flight, often through last-minute legal challenges.
This torment was suffered by a member of the Sri Lankan-based rebel faction, Tamil Tigers, who was threatened with return to his Sri Lankan torturers.
In 2016-17, more than 1,500 people were forcibly flown back from Britain to Albania, Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana. The U.K. has also forcibly sent refugees back to Afghanistan and Iraq – places where wars were started by the U.K. and its allies. Violence committed during repatriation by members of the contractor companies has also killed at least three asylum seekers.
It is unknown how many people have died due to their forced repatriation to the original country of abuse.
The Stansted 17 Show Trial
The Stansted direct action is the first of its kind to stop a deportation charter flight. Since last March, 34 of the 59 detainees have continuedtheir legal struggles to achieve safety and security in Britain.
The prosecution accuses the 17 people of breaking through the airport's security fence before locking themselves on to the plane for 10 hours. Police initially charged them with aggravated trespass and airport bye-laws offenses. The Crown Prosecution Service then increased the charges to terrorism for endangering an airport – exercising for the first time a law established after the 1990 Pan Am Flight that was blown up over southern Scotland.
Now, the Stansted 17 could face life imprisonment.
"These trumped up charges are a disgrace – and are completely out of proportion with what happened. We call on the government to scrap laws that make criminals of human rights activists. These are the new suffragettes," Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the U.K. Green Party, told VICE magazine.
The opposition Labour Party has also criticized the government's indefinite detention and forced repatriation charter flights for migrants.
Levying terrorism charges against peaceful activists makes this, for many, little more than a show trial. The message is that Britain will not tolerate people resisting its harsh immigration policies – part of a racist "hostile environment" policy toward refugees and migrants that has even included Nazi-style "Go Home Vans".
Conversely, the trial will be a showcase of Britain's immigration detention system and secretive deportation charter flights, flown under the cover of night. It will shine a brighter light on the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, and the growing movement to disrupt that abusive system.
Blocking Systemic Racism
Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre is one focal point in the fight against the U.K.'s immigration detention system. There, detainees are on hunger strike to protest their treatment.
The detention system has been criticised for many inhumane practices, including creating reserve lists so that people can be deported at any moment. The British Medical Association is among the organizations that have censured indefinite detention and the failures to safeguard detainees' health and well-being.
The advocacy group Women For Refugee Women has reported that many detainees are rape survivors, which the British state ignores as grounds for asylum. In addition, reports have shown that sexual and physical abuse is commonplace in detention, where detainees are sometimes sent to "punishment rooms".
A Globalized Problem – With an Intersectional Solution
What is happening in the U.K. is hardly isolated. A subvertising campaign on London's Tube showed Prime Minister Theresa May holding hands with Donald Trump. The U.S. has ratcheted up its own "hostile environment" to immigrants in both word and deed. But even before Trump, the U.S. was forcing people back to their deaths. Even in the Nordic countries, known for their social conscience, Finland has forced people back to their deaths.
It is important to remember that immigration detention and repatriation is part of the global capitalist system. That is to say: It is big business and it needs to be shut down. Business itself drives migration and refugees, not least capitalism's resource-driven wars. Incredibly, we live in a world where nations, especially the U.S. and U.K., freely send weapons across the globe – but do not allow people in those countries to flee those weapons.
On the upside, these systemic problems are bringing activists together intersectionally to help transform the whole system. In the case of the flight blockade, it brought queer activists together with those opposing climate change, all sitting alongside migrants' rights defenders.
Celebrating the protesters who stopped the detainees' flight, one torture survivor gave a rallying call to stand with the Stansted 17, which was published on Detained Voices:
"The problem is with the Home Office. No-one checks on them, they have absolute power over people's lives. They do whatever they want. People must stand up against injustice. We are very proud of the protesters. We hope they are treated well. They did the right thing."