17/12/2019 07:04 GMT | Updated 04/03/2020 20:22 GMT

Deporting Immigrants Is ‘Abhorrent’. Now Airline Staff Could Refuse To Help Do So

Nine years after death of Jimmy Mubenga on a British Airways flight, Unite branches say they want no part in deporting immigrants.

Matthew Lloyd via Getty Images
Supporters of Jimmy Mubenga's family pose with placards outside Westminster Magistrates Court.

Airline workers are on the verge of refusing to take part in the “abhorrent and dysfunctional” practice of deporting immigrants on the Home Office’s behalf, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Branches of Unite representing cabin crew and ground staff at UK airlines and airports have passed a motion calling for an immediate end to the use of passenger flights to kick people out of the country. It will now go to Unite’s policy conference in July to be debated and potentially adopted as the union’s official position.

Their umbrella group, Unite’s national industrial sector committee for civil air transport, says there are safety risks and grim psychological consequences for staff forced to take part in or witness violent restraints of deportees.

One British Airways cabin crew member, who spoke to HuffPost UK on condition of anonymity, said forced deportations could be traumatic for those on board.

“It can be violent,” he said. “[Deportees] can be spitting, shouting, saying that they are being taken against their will, that they are going to be killed when they land. And some of that could be true.”

Most deportations go peacefully, he added, but flight workers still feel deeply morally conflicted about being on board.

“You are put in a situation of being complicit with whatever’s happening,” he explained. “You can feel powerless. You’re torn between your sympathy for someone as a human being and carrying out your role as cabin crew.”

If the motion faces an obstacle at Unite, he said, it is likely to be the belief of some within the ranks that “every deported migrant is an axe-murderer or a rapist”.

A lot of people are influenced by the red-tops and think every deported migrant is an axe murderer or a rapistBA cabin crew member

“They aren’t thinking about the Windrush generation,” he said, “or a Chinese grandmother who hasn’t got the right papers.

“We don’t trust the government to make the right decisions about who can stay here and who can’t.” 

His words echoed an open letter penned by an ex-BA worker to her former employer in August. “How can a company as established as British Airways ask their employees to aid this abhorrent and dysfunctional process?” she wrote.

“British Airways claims to be an inclusive employer which upholds so-called British values. I would like to ask them what values they think they’re upholding by carrying out these deportations. Who exactly are they benefiting aside from a divisive governmental regime?”

Controversy surrounding the practice is not new. BA flight attendant Louise Graham was diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing the death of Jimmy Mubenga, 46, on a plane in 2010.

Father-of-five Mubenga suffered a cardiac arrest after being held down by on-board G4S security staff despite his desperate pleas for help. An inquest found he was unlawfully killed and the workers were tried for manslaughter but walked free.

PA Archive/PA Images
Colin Kaler and Terrence Hughes (right), of security firm G4S, arrive at the Old Bailey for their trial for restraint manslaughter. The pair were eventually cleared.

Mubenga, originally from Angola, had lived in east London since 1994 with his family. But the Home Office moved to deport him after he was convicted of causing actual bodily harm in a fight on a night out in 2006.

Flight worker Graham later sued the private security firm for the trauma she had experienced by being there.

In its motion, the committee said it was “particularly concerned about reports of ongoing trauma suffered by workers as a result of working on flights carrying deportees. [...] Escalating protest activity and resistance from deportees themselves also represents a risk to other passengers on commercial flights and in airports.”

It added: “Our cabin crew and ground staff [...] are put in a position of having to negotiate between protestors and security staff accompanying deportees while maintaining the safety of all passengers and crew.

“In many cases, airline and airport workers must carry out this role despite struggling with their own opposition to the process.”

In many cases, airline and airport workers must carry out this role despite struggling with their own opposition to the process.Unite national industrial sector committee for civil air transport

Neither British Airways or the Home Office could say how many seats the airline sold the government each year to deport people, or for how much – but the deals are likely worth millions of pounds. In 2017, according to the government’s own figures, the Home Office carried out more than 12,000 so-called “forced returns”, and over the course of the two previous years it paid travel firms £52m to deport people.

BA told HuffPost UK it was bound by the 1971 Immigration Act to assist the government in deportations.

But campaigners pointed to the fact Virgin Atlantic was able to withdraw from the same work last year without any penalty.

They believe BA is voluntarily taking part in deportations – and raking in huge sums of money for its trouble – without the Home Office needing to force its hand.

Virgin bowed to pressure in May 2018 after attracting the attention of campaign group Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM). The airline had recently been announced as a Pride sponsor, something LGSM said was incompatible with its role in deporting LGBTQ people to countries where they were at risk of violence or even death.

“We believe this decision is in the best interest of our customers and people,” Virgin said at the time, “and is in keeping with our values as a company.”

PA Wire/PA Images
British Airways planes at Heathrow Airport's terminal 5.

LGSM’s Sam Bjorn gave BA’s excuse short shrift.

She told HuffPost UK: “We call on British Airways to prove to us that they are being forced, prove that they are not making money through deportations and publicly condemn the negative impact on migrants, as well as on the workers who do not want to participate.

“Until they do so, it is clear that they are using this law to mask the reality that they are profiting from suffering and violence.”

There is a legal provision for pilots to refuse to fly if they have concerns about the safety of anyone on board. Between January and September 2017, according to figures obtained from the German government by the country’s Left Party, at least 222 international commercial flights on which people were being forcibly deported were stopped due to pilots’ concerns for the safety of passengers or crew.

The Home Office also told us it had the power to compel airlines to deport people, but wouldn’t say whether it routinely or indeed ever exercised that power, adding that commercial contracts were confidential.

A spokesperson would not be drawn on whether Virgin had broken any laws, or whether there would be any negative consequences for BA should it follow Virgin’s lead.

Most forced deportees, or “returns”, are convicted criminals, he added.

Before Thursday’s election was called, LGSM’s campaign had also drawn the support of Che Onwurah – the then chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Africa and a Labour MP for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Central.

In a letter, she urged chief exec Alex Cruz to be “a pioneer for human rights” by “ending this toxic relationship doing the dirtiest of works for the Home Office”.

Virgin Atlantic and Balpa, the pilots’ union, did not respond to requests for comment.