John is a member of the Freed Voices group. They are a collective of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. Between them, they have lost over 20 years to detention in this country. They speak out in solidarity with all those people in detention in this country and around the world. They speak out because they want an immigration system based on justice, dignity and respect. They speak out because they want to see the walls of detention fall.
I was in the Verne IRC when I found out. It used to be an old prison but three years ago was converted into a detention centre. It used to be an ordinary prison – but three years ago, it was converted into an Immigration Detention Centre. I’d been in there a month or so, my second time round in detention. I was called in to see Immigration and they gave me my papers. The word ‘Charter‘ jumped off the page.
My first reaction was fear. I was worried. I knew what it meant to be on a charter flight: that it’s more difficult to get your flight cancelled than with normal removal directions. I understood the negative probability, the odds that were stacked against me. There are strong emotional connotations that come with those words – ‘charter flight’. I think it’s the same for most people in detention.
Some people given charter tickets were talking openly about it. But there were also definitely those who were embarrassed. They were trying to hide it. People talk about charters in such a terrible way, and there are such strong images connected with it… it’s an extreme situation and many people think then it must be used only for the most ‘extreme’ cases. People think it’s a plane full of hardened criminals or something. Like some kind of prison-plane. Like it’s Con Air. The reality is that you don’t need a criminal conviction to find yourself on a charter flight. But the stigma that surrounds the flight, even among those who might be on it, should not be underestimated.
I only knew one other guy in the Verne who also got the charter ticket and in that moment, he became the only contact I had back in Nigeria – or at least, the only contact I would have. I left that country when I was child. My family, my life, my studies…everything is in the UK.
I got my ticket two weeks before the flight. It feels like once you’ve been given the ticket, there’s nothing more you can do. There is a special weight to a charter ticket that is difficult to explain. As soon as you’re put on the flight list you become even more invisible then you were before in detention. I had a few elements of my case still pending but overnight you become un-seen, like some kind of dead-man walking – by the guards, by the solicitors, by everyone. Once you get the charter flight ticket, the culture of disbelief that characterises detention more generally goes on steroids. The Home Office can see people get really desperate, and so they assume people will say anything, and so they don’t really take anything seriously. It’s a cycle of disbelief and desperation they push. People were screaming, saying they would be persecuted if they were sent back. Some guys were pushed to self-harm. Did the Home Office care? Hell no.
On the day itself, I was speaking to a guard, telling him I was on the charter flight. He was the one that actually told me my name was on the ‘reserve list’. He assured me I wouldn’t be on the flight, let alone the bus. I was happy. I was hopeful. Next thing, they took everyone that was supposed to be on the flight out of their rooms. And after 45 minutes, then an hour, still no one had come to get me. I thought perhaps my Judicial Review had got through, which would have given me time to mount a formal legal challenge to my deportation. I was celebrating with my cellmate. We were about to get dinner when a centre manager came by and told me I had to go and speak to the guards. Deep down, I guess I knew that this was just a trick. I followed this man into a room, and the door locked behind me. My cellmate rang to tell me they were packing my things, and only then did I really know.
There were three Tascor guards waiting for me when they took me to reception. When I asked why there were so many, they said it was because I was considered high risk, because I had said something about self-harming. They told me if I resisted then they would tie me up. When they walked me over to the van to take me to the plane, two of them held my arms – one on the left, one on the right. They buckled me in. Even then, I was just hoping and praying that whatever my family and solicitor were doing, was going to work.
I remember walking up to the plane, it had Titan written on it. There were two compartments when you got on and everyone in my bit was silent. Looking around, I saw some people that I’d known from detention, from the first time round. But there were also people who hadn’t even spent any time in detention, they’d been picked up just for this flight. Everyone looked sad. Some people were handcuffed. You could feel a thick mixture of anxiety and hopelessness. In this sense, it was not how I thought it was going to be. No one tried anything, in the way there might be on a commercial flight, for example. This was probably because there were two guards on either side of every passenger. They were ‘private security’ and they were seriously huge, seriously scary. Some of them looked like they were two guys in one. It was as if we were extremely dangerous criminals, wanted by Interpol or something. I haven’t committed a crime in my life.
Even as we took off, I was still mainly thinking about my family and my parents, and worrying how they were doing. Everyone on the plane knew where we were going, I just didn’t know what we’d find when we got there. That was actually the main thing I remember about the flight – that people were really scared about the whole world knowing that they had been deported. They were worried about who might be there at the airport.
At some point I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up, Africa was below us.
It was only when the plane landed that I started to feel really, really anxious. I started to panic. The reality of the situation hit me hard. Punch to the face. My family and friends were gone. Punch to the stomach. I had been forcibly removed. Punch to the balls.
The guy from the detention centre – the only person I knew in Nigeria – was not around me on the plane and I was worried he that maybe didn’t get on. When we stopped though, one of the guards read his name out on a list and he answered. I was so happy to hear he was also there! It was a strange moment to wish such a thing on someone. But he was literally all I had. I felt sick.
I didn’t have a clue what to expect when the doors opened, but I was completely shocked that there were photographers taking pictures of us. It was mad. It made me feel really unsafe. I felt so exposed. The next day, the photos were all over Nigerian websites. Very, very, clear pictures. It was horrible – like we were being publicly shamed as deportees.
I had nothing when I got out the airport. I hadn’t even packed anything because I was told I wouldn’t fly. The Home Office had taken my phone. I realised how alone I was.
I’ve been here for a few months now. I can’t forget my experiences of detention and the charter flight, and I can’t forgive the people who did it. Detention, deportation…these things fuck you up for life. I have really mixed feelings about the UK now and I’m angry I’ve been forced to feel like this. The UK is my home, and my whole life is there. But more than anything, I feel a great sense of betrayal. The British government locked me up indefinitely and did everything they could to deny me justice. I get mad when I think about what my family and friends had to go through. My heart sinks when I think about what this experience has cost them.
I only heard about activists stopping a charter flight in Stanstead after talking to other Freed Voices members. I was happy to hear about this, I didn’t think such an action was possible. Hopefully lots of people will have seen this and will get involved in fighting Home Office policy. People need to understand the reality of what’s happening around them, what’s been done in their name. And not just with charter flights, but also detention, immigration raids, tagging, all that – the hostile environment as a whole. Because believe me, there’s a lot at stake. I should know.