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Exclusive: Number of people deported on Home Office charter flights triples during pandemic

Almost one in six of the government’s charter flights leave with fewer than 10 passengers, new figures reveal

The number of people deported by the Home Office on charter flights has nearly tripled since 2019, The Big Issue can reveal.

More than 1,000 people were removed on the controversial flights last year – but one in six planes left with fewer than 10 people on board.

The findings have renewed calls for charter flights to be scrapped.

Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), told The Big Issue: “We need to see urgent changes to this broken system that tries to deport people at all costs – people should not be exiled from the only place they’ve ever called home, and everyone deserves the right to have their cases calmly and fairly assessed.”

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Home Office statistics obtained by The Big Issue show the government ran 57 charter flights in 2021, deporting at least 1,155 people.

The figure is a third greater than the 828 people removed in 2020, and almost three times the 410 deported in 2019.

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“It’s deeply worrying that this government has been deporting more and more people during a global pandemic,” Gardner added.

“The government has still not righted the wrongs done to the Windrush generation, where British people were wrongly targeted by the Hostile Environment, but it is continuing to pursue deportations based on the same discriminatory and inhumane systems.

“Many of those deported have lived in the UK for decades, some since childhood and even since birth. Many face destitution and acute danger after deportation, while they leave behind families that have been ripped apart.”

Most of those deported in 2021 were removed to European countries. Some 435 people were removed to Albania, the highest.

The statistics, released to The Big Issue through a Freedom of Information request, cover flights until November.

A small number were removed to Jamaica (11) and Nigeria and Ghana (seven).

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said there was a vast human toll behind the statistics and called for the policy to be scrapped.

“These numbers represent numerous children whose parents have been ripped away by a deportation policy that legalises child cruelty,” she said.

“They represent people who grew up in our communities, only to be banished from their homes, regardless of the damage to their families, communities and whether they have been rehabilitated.

“All political parties who care at all for justice, must re-examine and pledge to reform our cruel deportation regime and adopt humane policies that don’t tear families apart and harm children.”

Karen Doyle, an activist with campaign group Movement for Justice, which supports those in line for deportation, added: “The increased use of mass deportation charter flights illustrates this government’s disregard for human rights. 

“In their race to look ‘tough’ on immigration they subject whole communities, families, and children to a torturous and unjust process.”

Two planes left with fewer than five passengers, including a flight to Jamaica in November which was due to have up to 50 passengers.

The Home Office blames “last-minute legal challenges” for the near-empty flights. But a Big Issue investigation, published this week, has found that those due to be deported often lack adequate legal representation until they are detained.

One detainee who spoke about his experience in detention said his existing solicitors, who he was paying, were not representing him properly. It was only when served with a removal direction, in his cell in an immigration removal centre, that he was able to appoint free legal aid solicitors who examined his case and had him removed from his flight. Activists and lawyers say this is a common situation.

Jamie Bell, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis, said the government detains people who should not be in line for deportation as a means to fill the flights.

“We know for a fact because a lot of clients who’ve gone on to get leave to remain have been removed from charter flights,” he told the Big Issue.

The government defends charter flights as a way to remove criminals. However, people without criminal convictions were due for removal on the most recent flight to Jamaica, until the intervention of Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy.

The government also operates removals on scheduled flights, alongside specifically chartered flights.

Despite the increase in those removed on charter flights, the government describes the current system as “broken” – because “those facing removal or deportation from the UK can sometimes raise numerous and repeated barriers delaying their departure from the UK.”

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The new Nationalities and Borders Bill would give the government greater powers on deportation. 

It would speed up the process of deportation, including appeals, to allow the government to deport people faster.

It would also allow Priti Patel to impose visa penalties for countries that do not cooperate with the UK on deportations. These could include suspension of visas, a £190 surcharge on applications, and an increase on processing times.

And it grants the government the power to deprive almost six million people of citizenship.

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Releasing the statistics, the Home Office said: “Every week the Home Office removes, to different countries, people who have no right to be in the UK. During the Covid-19 pandemic we have continued to deport foreign national offenders and return other immigration offenders where flight routes have been available to us, both on scheduled and charter flights.

“The government’s efforts to facilitate entirely legitimate and legal returns of people who have entered the UK illegally are often frustrated by late challenges submitted hours before the flight. These claims are often baseless and entirely without merit but are given full legal consideration which can lead to removal being rescheduled. Some operations also have to be cancelled or deferred for reasons related to Covid-19. 

“We are looking to address some of this through the New plan for Immigration which aims to more easily remove those with no right to be in the UK.”

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