Mon. Jun 10th, 2024

Plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have already proved to be divisive. The Conservatives say flights will take off if they are re-elected but Labour want to scrap the policy completely.

News has been given access to a secret training location, where hundreds of staff are being taught how to deal with people who refuse to go.

‘Rather die’
On the evening of 14 June 2022, at Boscombe Down airfield, in Wiltshire, detention officers were taking one of the first asylum seekers nominated for removal to Rwanda on to a waiting airliner.

The man was wearing a restraint belt, with straps designed to stop him using his arms, having told his escorts he would rather die than board the plane.

According to “use of force” reports, obtained by a journalist at Liberty Investigates, he began screaming and headbutting the seat.

He had to be further restrained by an escort who described using “head control” to ensure the man did not “headbutt either of the escorts or injure himself”.

Another detainee bound for Rwanda had already cut himself with a drink can.

The plane was held on the ground for an hour before a court ordered the flight to be cancelled.

This plane would have been the first to transport detainees to Rwanda – but a court stopped the flight
It was a major blow to the government’s plan to “stop the boats” by threatening those coming to the UK illegally with being sent to Rwanda to claim asylum.

If successful, they would live there rather than in the UK.

Two years on from the aborted flight, many of the legal obstacles have been removed.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to get planes off the ground if the Conservatives win the election.

But if Labour wins, leader Keir Starmer has already said he will scrap the entire policy.

The Home Office already removes failed asylum seekers and foreign criminals every week – but if the Conservatives stay in office, 2,000 could be on the list for Rwanda flights, potentially starting soon after election day.

Specialist instruction
To make it happen the government has rented a secret training facility for a year, at a cost of £6.4m, for training extra Home Office immigration enforcement staff and private contractors

BBC News has been given exclusive access on condition of not identifying the location, to minimise risks to staff.

Inside, are three airliner fuselages, missing their wings and tails, with differing layouts to enable officers to practise getting detainees safely into their seats.

Some 800 staff, both existing and new recruits, who have already had five weeks’ basic training, will be given seven days’ specialist instruction in immigration removals in vehicles and on aircraft.

Aircraft fuselages used to train immigration enforcement staff
The training planes lack noses and wings
We watched as two officers politely introduced themselves to a third, acting as a detainee, securing her arms, and practised escorting her up steps and on to a plane.

One immigration officer told me he had been involved in “thousands of removals” but had needed to use restraint in about 5% only.

Officers train for handling those who will not comply on crash mats in rows of tents they call “dojos”.

We were not allowed to watch more physical training and the use of cuffs, waist and leg restraints.

Unlawfully killed
They practise carrying the “detainee” up the stairs to a plane and sitting them in a seat.

It takes three officers to escort one detainee, two in seats either side, the other across the aisle offering support.

All three fly to the destination.

“It can be quite challenging,” one of the trainers, Mark Preston says, but the “force used is always reasonable”.

But the use of force in the immigration system has sometimes not been reasonable.

In 2010, Jimmy Mubenga died while being sent back to Angola.

A coroner concluded he had been unlawfully killed, though his escorts were later cleared of manslaughter.

Six years later, One’s Panorama programme secretly filmed a near-naked detainee being dragged screaming through the Brook House Immigration Removal Centre before being taken to an airport.

A public inquiry called following the documentary highlighted 10 examples of inappropriate and potentially dangerous use of force by detention officers at Brook House, near Gatwick.

As they would never return to the UK, detainees sent to Rwanda may be less likely to comply with their removal.

The charity Medical Justice says it has assessed more than 30 people in detention centres, awaiting removal under the Rwanda programme.

According to its director, Emma Ginn, they include “victims of torture and trafficking, people who are highly distressed, and lots of people saying they have mental-health conditions and physical conditions”.

There was a only “slim chance” of them complying and force not being required, she said.

The Home Office says force must be used as a last resort only and, following the Brook House inquiry, new guidelines are being developed.

‘Mentally disturbed’
A young Iraqi Kurdish asylum seeker, detained ahead of the 2022 Rwanda flight, told BBC News the experience had been “really horrifying”.

“I was full of sadness, worry, anxiousness and full of recurring memories from the past,” he said, showing us a hand he said had been mutilated by a gunshot.

“’I’m emotionally and mentally disturbed.

“I don’t know the language of the country. And I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”

He has recently been sent another notice of removal and could be detained at any time.

Election campaign
Last month, Mr Sunak said the government had “an airfield on standby”, thought to be Boscombe Down.

Officials have previously hinted no notice would be given, to prevent protestors disrupting the flights.

But as the election campaign began, the prime minister reiterated his plan for flights “in July”, creating the possibility the Conservatives would leave power without a single flight taking off.

And he will probably have to fight the campaign without an active Rwanda operation, a key part of his strategy to “stop the boats”.

Labour says it would tackle channel crossings by giving the issue the same priority as terrorism, beefing up the response of the police and National Crime Agency and mobilising the security services.

For the government, Rwanda is a policy ready to take off.

But voters will now have the ultimate decision about whether it should be grounded.

By Joy

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