Author: Amelia Gentleman
Virgin airlines has said it will no longer assist the Home Office in deporting people classed as illegal immigrants, following pressure from LGBT campaigners and rising unease over the wrongful removal of Windrush people to Caribbean countries.
Virgin Atlantic said it had already informed the Home Office of its decision, which it said was taken “in the interest of all our customers and staff”. Migrant rights campaigners said the announcement reflected “a profound shift in public opinion on deportation since the emergence of the Windrush scandal”.
For years, Virgin airlines has provided seats on its commercial flights to detainees and security staff accompanying them. A charity in Jamaica that helps resettle deported people from the UK said detainees regularly arrived as passengers on Virgin flights. British Airways has also deported individuals to Jamaica.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, admitted last month that at least 63 Windrush generation people had been wrongly removed to the Caribbean, despite having lived in the UK since before 1971, and consequently eligible for British citizenship.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “Last month we made the decision to end all involuntary deportations on our network, and have already informed the Home Office. We believe this decision is in the best interest of our customers and people, and is in keeping with our values as a company.”
The decision emerged after campaigners from an LGBT campaign group working on securing migrant rights contacted Virgin, pointing out that the company’s decision to sponsor next week’s Pride march in London was at odds with its policy of helping the government deport asylum-seekers. Virgin is understood to have removed some LGBT asylum seekers to countries where same-sex relationships are illegal.
Sam Bjorn, a spokesperson from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, said: “Virgin’s role in enforcing deportations has been devastating to people taken, against their will, to countries where they risk persecution, or have very little connection to. Not only did the airline unflinchingly put people’s lives in danger for many years, it also made their staff unwillingly complicit in the brutality of the UK’s hostile environment policy.
“Public attention will now be turning to other airline companies like British Airways who are still involved in transporting deportees.”
Responding to an approach from the campaigners, Virgin said the airline had already decided to end its involvement with deportations. Staff said the decision had not been made in response to one particular issue, but that it was made after the company concluded that it would be better “overall” if it no longer assisted with deportations.
Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, said: “I welcome Virgin’s decision but now BA has to follow suit. How can any airline justify working with the Home Office to deport people when in all too many cases they are being sent back to face discrimination and persecution.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not comment on operational matters.” Officials would not comment on contracts with specific airlines, adding only that the department “seeks to develop strong working relationships with our partners and strives to work collaboratively with air carriers to return those who are in the UK illegally”.
Officials added that if an asylum seeker was found to be at risk of persecution or serious harm in their country of origin because of their sexuality or gender identity, refuge in the UK would be granted.
British Airways was approached for comment.
Transport of detainees is becoming an increasingly politically sensitive issue. Last week, in the US, American and United airlines said they would refuse to fly migrant children separated from their parents on behalf of the US government, saying the policy ran “counter to their corporate goals”.
Almost 1,000 seats on flights were booked to deport people suspected of being in the UK illegally to Caribbean countries in the year to March 2018, official figures show. Deportations to the Caribbean were “deferred” after the Windrush revelations; it is not clear whether they have been restarted. In the two years 2015-17, the government spent £52m on all deportation flights, including £17.7m on charter flights.
Anthony Bryan, who had lived in the UK for 50 years since he was eight, was booked on a flight to Jamaica in November, but an intervention from his lawyer meant he avoided deportation. The government has apologised to him, and to the others wrongly deported, although their identities remain unclear.
Colin Yeo, a barrister specialising in immigration law, said the 1971 Immigration Act made not co-operating with the Home Office a criminal offence for the airline captain or owner. The Home Office was unable to say whether it might attempt to use this legislation to force airlines to carry out deportations.
Zita Holbourne, national chair of Barac UK, which campaigns against deportations, said: “The tide has changed, forcing organisations to get behind the public. They will be concerned about their image; they don’t want to be associated with the failures of the government and that fact that people have been wrongly deported.”