Back in 2017, a group of 15 activists made headlines when they halted a charter flight that would deport 60 people from the UK. After some were given suspended jail sentences, and others, community orders, the group are now appealing their convictions. Raoul Walawalker, feature writer at the Immigration Advice Service platform ImmiNews, explains the importance of their case and subsequent appeal.
Amidst intense criticism of the Home Office's immigration policies, the appeal hearing of the 'Stansted 15' last week was a reminder that the government has consistently shown its willingness to resort to trumped-up charges to defend its policies.
The case of the Stansted 15 received much attention three years ago, initially because of the originality of the direct action carried out by the group of 15 activists – but later because of the unusual nature of the charges against them. The group made their appeal against these charges last week.
All 15 were given convictions following the incident in 2017 in which they cut through Stansted airport’s perimeter fence and locked arms together around a plane chartered by the Home Office to deport 60 people from detention centres to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
While not receiving jail sentences, they were initially charged with ‘aggravated trespass,’ viewed by lawyers as the most probable charge for their action. But four months later, their charge was changed to ‘endangering safety at aerodromes’ – a serious terrorism-related charge which has a maximum penalty of a life sentence.
The group were allowed to appeal this, and were heard in the Court of Appeal from 24 to 26 November this year; receiving strong support from human rights groups and several MPs. The details of that night three years ago were presented in a documentary by the filmmaker Sue Clayton, which shows a small, peaceful and well-organised protest – involving pink hats, high-vis coats, banners, people in protest-logoed t-shirts and a stationary aeroplane in a loading dock – no engine running, no passengers, no confrontation – demonstrating the dubiousness of a charge of endangering safety, or behaviour that could be construed as terror-related.
The film also reflects their valid belief that the mass deportation flight would have put lives of those aboard in danger, and that to stop this, their only recourse was preventing the flight’s departure.
Apart from legal interventions, and some indirect pressure on airlines not to provide planes for deporting people, the group are right in that there isn’t another avenue for preventing deportations. And after appeals, 11 of the deportees were later granted permission to remain. Two were found to be victims of trafficking.
Hodge Jones & Allen, the legal firm appealing the Stansted 15's convictions, has continued to argue that the laws used to convict them are unsuitable as they were intended to deal with terrorism, not demonstration. Previously, it expressed incredulity at the charges used.
“In 20 years as a lawyer, I have never experienced a charge being changed from one where you can get only three months as a maximum, to one where you can get life imprisonment,” said Raj Chada, their defence lawyer at HJA, during the documentary.
Meanwhile, human rights groups believe that not only was the legislation unmerited, but has also been used to inhibit legitimate protest in future.
At the time of the charge, Amnesty International wrote to the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General calling for charge to be dropped, arguing that it had been instigated to discourage other activists from taking similar action.
Since the incident and the subsequent convictions of the Stansted 15, deportation flights have remained as contentious as before, but there has been no repeat of the preventive protest action.
Judgement on the appeal has still not been passed. According to lawyers, it could be still some time before it’s pronounced. On the last day, Chada tweeted: “A thought for the clients who are now approaching the fourth-year anniversary of this legal nightmare, and the ongoing victims of immigration detention and deportation flights.”
The appeal was supported by MPs that included Nadia Whittome, Zara Sultana, Apsana Begum and Diane Abbott, who are also among seventy Labour MPs who wrote to the Home Office demanding the cancellation of a deportation flight scheduled to leave on 2 December taking up to 50 deportees to Jamaica.
Solidarity with the #Stansted15 who are in court today to appeal their charges.— Nadia Whittome MP (@NadiaWhittomeMP) November 24, 2020
Of the people whose deportations they prevented, 11 now legally live in the UK.
These brave activists should be celebrated as heroes. pic.twitter.com/d3VfHizRKl
A damning report published last month by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission should have strengthened the case for the cancellation of this week's flight. It highlighted how the Home Office broke equality laws through the impact of its 'hostile environment' policy on people from the Windrush generation, which led to the ‘Windrush Scandal’ involving hundreds of wrongful detentions, deportations and denials of legal rights.
The hostile environment policy sought to put intense pressure on people without documentation despite the fact that it would affect thousands of people without documents who nevertheless still had the legal rights of any UK citizen.
Numerous other aspects of the hostile environment policy are still in place, consciously causing pressures such as enforced poverty and destitution risks, mainly targeted at asylum seekers and immigrants workers. The policy of deporting people designated as ‘criminals’ without full and fair assessment of their situation and human rights remains, and is among the most contentious.
Frustratingly for campaigners, the plight of flight deportees currently relies on luck and intervention from lawyers, often at the last minute. Fortunately, legal intervention did stop 30 of the 50 planned deportations this week.
The humanitarian intervention by the Stansted 15 was an exceptional act of concerned citizens. The legal consequences still weigh over the 15 to this day.
Header image via End Deportations