4th October, 2011
A police investigation has been launched into an alleged assault on a Nigerian asylum seeker in front of her three young children on a plane bound for Italy.
The alleged incident occurred just two weeks after the launch of the governmentâ€™s new family-friendly removal policy. The family are one of the first to be detained under the new arrangements.
The woman, Faith 39, said six of the eight escorts on the flight beat her on the arms and legs, twisted her hand and put hands around her neck. She said she was left spitting blood and had still not recovered.
Her claims have raised concerns among human rights campaigners about the treatment of asylum seeker families during the revamped removals process.
Faith and her three children, aged four, six and eight, were taken by surprise when they were arrested by a group of 10 to 12 uniformed officers in a 5.30am raid at their home in Birmingham on 19 September and driven to the governmentâ€™s new secure pre-departure accommodation at Pease Pottage near Crawley, West Sussex â€“ an experience which Faith said terrified them all.
â€œI feel so bad. Why have all these things happened to me?â€ said Faith, who has asked for her surname not to be revealed. â€œWhen they came to arrest us at 5.30am at our home in Birmingham, they kept banging on the door. The children were very upset and were crying. They wouldnâ€™t even allow me any privacy to wash myself in the bathroom before we left.â€
Emma Ginn, co-ordinator of the charity Medical Justice, which campaigns to end child detention, said: â€œSome politicians claim the coalition agreement promise to end the immigration detention of children has been fulfilled. They should come clean and admit the promise has been broken. The government should now do what they say they would and actually end the detention of children.â€
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, announced in December 2010 that child detention was going to end in May of this year. He said the government was ending the â€œshamefulâ€ practice in which â€œchildren are literally taken from their homes without warning and placed behind barsâ€. He added: â€œOur reforms will deliver an approach to families that is compassionate and humane.â€
Once the family were detained in Pease Pottage, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) made three failed attempts to remove them on flights to Italy, the country where Faith had been living for more than a decade, where she had permission to work and where her children were born. She said she fled Italy following persecution by her family and local community members and claimed asylum in the UK in November 2010.
The failed removal attempts took place even though high court judges have granted several injunctions against the removal of refused asylum seekers to Italy in recent weeks. The injunctions have been granted until a decision has been made in a case about whether or not it is acceptable to forcibly remove asylum seekers to Italy. A decision is due on 14 October.
In the first attempted removal from the UK on 22 September, Faith and her children were taken to Londonâ€™s Heathrow airport and put on to the 7.30am Alitalia flight AZ 201 to Rome. Faith said she became distressed and kept saying â€œOh my God, I canâ€™t make this journeyâ€, while strapped into her seat. At that point, the alleged assault by six of the eight escorts accompanying the family took place and the pilot ordered the escorts to take the family off the plane.
â€œI thought I was going to die,â€ said Faith. â€œThe escorts beat me on the chest and legs, pulled my hair, twisted my left hand and put their hands around my neck. I thought they were about to strangle me. We were sitting at the back of the plane with five male escorts and three female ones. Two of the women didnâ€™t touch me but the five men and one woman assaulted me.
â€œI couldnâ€™t breathe and afterwards I was spitting blood. My children were crying â€˜mummy is dying, mummy is dying.â€™ Someone needs to talk to my children; they are very traumatised by all this. One of them said â€˜When I grow up Iâ€™m going to tell the queen what they did to my mum.â€™â€
A second deportation attempt was made the following day. The family were taken to Gatwick but were unable to board the flight to Italy as there were no seats available.
By 26 September, the family had been in Pease Pottage for seven days, the maximum time allowed for a family to be detained under the new rules. In order to remove the family, the UKBA booked a private charter flight from Stansted airport to Italy. But the familyâ€™s lawyer intervened the day before they were due to leave and obtained a judicial review in the high court citing the pending case about forced removals to Italy. The court granted an injunction halting the planned removal. The family was subsequently released and is now back in Birmingham.
Faith said she was still in pain following the assault, was finding it hard to raise her arm or leg and has difficulty opening her mouth.
â€œOn my life, since I was born I have never received such a beating,â€ she said. â€œAnd to do it in front of my kids. One of the escorts called me â€˜an animalâ€™ and said he was doing his job. I replied: â€˜If you kill me you will go to jail and lose your job.â€™â€
She said one of the passengers filmed the assault on his mobile phone and she urged him and any other passengers who witnessed the incident to come forward.
Faithâ€™s asylum claim was refused in January and the family was asked to report to the airport in March to board a flight to Italy. Instead, they absconded because Faith said she feared further abuse in Italy if they were returned there.
The childrenâ€™s charity Barnadoâ€™s has attracted controversy after accepting a government contract to work with families at Pease Pottage.
Barnadoâ€™s said: â€œWe have publicly set out our â€˜red linesâ€™ in regards to the use of the pre-departure accommodation and we are committed to speaking out if these are breached. We are confident that we are able to balance this with our responsibility to maintain confidentiality around individual families.â€
The Home Office declined to make an official statement about the case but a spokesman confirmed West Sussex police and its own professional standards unit were investigating a serious misconduct complaint. He said the family were expected to return to Italy and that every assistance had been offered to help them do so.
Reliance took over the contract to escort immigration detainees from G4S in May of this year. The company declined to comment. Its website states: â€œReliance will oversee the safe custody and welfare of detainees.â€