How do you stop a passenger plane from taking off? That was the challenge facing activists on Tuesday, March 28, as they tried to stop a "deportation flight" from leaving the UK carrying failed asylum seekers and other migrants. Seventeen activists split into two groups, with one team locking themselves to the wheel of the plane and another putting up a tripod by the jet's wing and locking themselves to the base — all to protest against mass deportations.
Seventeen activists from three campaign organisations — Plane Stupid, End Deportations, and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants — blockaded a runway at Stansted Airport in Essex at around 10pm on Tuesday night. The deportation flight bound for Ghana and Nigeria ended up being cancelled, and commercial flights coming into Stansted – the fourth-busiest airport in the UK – were diverted to other airports.
This is the first time that campaign groups have blockaded a runway and stopped a Home Office charter flight. Activists say that there were around 70 people destined to be deported on the flight.
All 17 activists were arrested by police and have been charged on suspicion of aggravated trespass. Emma Hughes was one of the activists involved in the protest, and spoke to FRANCE 24's Observers about the 10 hour-long blockade.
“It was obvious the flight wasn’t going anywhere”
At around 10 o’clock on Tuesday night we entered the airport, and managed to get on to the runway. We went to the airplane and had to set up fast because security came very quickly.
We were in two groups – one group locked themselves around the wheel of the plane using arm tubes [Editor's note: a standard tool used by protestors that involves putting a chain around one's wrist with a carabiner that can be attached to an object or the carabiner of another activist. Then you put your arm into a piece of piping, normally made of metal or a dense, heavy material, meaning police have to remove you from the arm tube by carefully sawing through from the outside].This screenshot from a video published on the Stop Charter Flights - End Deportations Facebook page shows two activists locked together using an arm tube. The video was filmed by the activist sitting on top of the tripod.
The other group set up a tripod by the wing of the plane and locked themselves around the bottom of it. One person sits at the top of the tripod, which makes it dangerous for police to yank it.This video shows the view from on top of the tripod, which has a large banner attached to it that says, "No one is illegal".
We were right next to the plane, effectively stopping it from backing out on to the runway, and were there for ten hours, until 8 o’clock the next morning. When you’re there for so long it is very painful: your arms are hoisted up behind your head, and you’re lying on your back on cold, hard concrete and not really moving. I was feeling pretty bad by the end.
All of the people who were supposed to get on that flight had arrived in coaches from detention centres. By about 3 o’clock in the morning it was obvious that the flight wasn’t going anywhere. The stairs to the plane were taken away, the staff started to leave. When we saw the coaches [containing the deportees] pull out and leave, that was a massive high.A video showing the moment when the activists think the flight has been cancelled. Someone narrates, "Those are the stairs being packed away now. We've just seen the crew leaving the aeroplane. And it looks to me like this flight is not going to be going anywhere tonight, we hope, and we hope that that will be enough time for some of the cases that are still in progress to get done. I've gotta go, bye."
The police were with us for the whole ten hours. It took a couple of hours for the removals team to arrive, and they started to cut us out of our arm tubes one-by-one using saws. The actual process of being removed was not fun – the police were not friendly, let’s say, and they were pretty forceful. When we were cut out, we were taken to different police stations and questioned for nearly 24 hours. I was released around 2am on Thursday morning.
For me, it was so positive to be able to delay this flight and stop these people from being deported. It gives them extra time to have their cases heard by the Home Office or to get legal counsel.
We didn’t do the protest to disrupt the airport. We weren’t in the commercial part of the airport, and we didn’t think that flights would be diverted. That was not our aim – for me, it was knowing that the people on this flight would face death or persecution upon being returned to their countries that was the motivating factor.The activists in their arm tubes. Photo: Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.
Charter flights are the most extreme end of a hostile immigration system. After Trump’s Muslim ban there was a huge outcry, but there’s silence on what’s happening in the UK with indiscriminate rounding up of asylum seekers without due process. We wanted to draw attention to the racism of that policy.
The Home Office has no interest in being transparent. By having secretive flights that take off in the middle of the night, they avoid scrutiny: there is no accountability. It’s an inhumane practice.
The France 24 Observers team contacted the Home Office, who refused to give details about the incident, calling it an “operational matter”. There were 12,056 enforced removals, or deportations, from the UK in 2015, according to the most recent statistics published on the Home Office website.
The blog Detained Voices was in contact with the group of people who were to be deported. They published their testimonies on their website. One woman’s story read: “I had to leave Nigeria because I was scared of my husband. I was forced to marry him in an arranged marriage. He said he knows I am being deported. He is waiting for me. He is planning to kill me. I don’t want to go on that plane. I can’t go.”
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