‘We were tortured by smugglers. Now the government is torturing us’
The UK’s first deportation flight to Rwanda leaves on Tuesday. Refugees and activists are trying to stop it
Bahram* fled torture and persecution in Iran and arrived in the UK by boat last month. “I had to go through a dangerous route. I put my life in the hands of smugglers but I had no other choice,” he told openDemocracy.
But as soon as he touched British soil, the smuggler alerted the British police, who threw him into Brook House immigration detention centre.
The Home Office served Bahram with a notice on 31 May saying he’d be removed to Rwanda. He’s one of hundreds due to be on the first removal flight as part of Priti Patel’s controversial new scheme that seeks to have asylum claims processed in the East African country.
“I didn’t know anything about the plan to send people like me to Rwanda, and I can’t describe how devastated I’ve been since getting the news,” he said
“If the UK doesn’t want to accept any refugees then they should just say it outright. I came to the UK to seek asylum – not Rwanda, a country that’s had civil wars and human rights violations and is not a country that I want to be sent to as an asylum seeker.”
Bahram was a police commander in Iran but suffered persecution and torture after disobeying orders to shoot protesters in November 2019.
“His case is an example of acting according to conscience and being punished for it,” said Shadi Sadr, the executive director of NGO Justice for Iran and one of the organisers of the Iran Atrocities Tribunal, which examines evidence of human rights violations in Iran.
Sadr says they’re determined to win his case: “We have made every single attempt to save him from being transferred to Rwanda,” she explains, “including by appealing to the media, human rights organisations and politicians. We have also secured him one of the best teams of lawyers to work on the judicial review and take any other legal action that may be required.”
‘I just want a normal peaceful life’
Like Bahram, 23-year-old Zoran* from Iraq has been detained since arriving in the UK on 14 May. He says his mental health is deteriorating in detention.
“I just want a normal peaceful life. I don’t know why they’ve put me here, and why they were threatening to send me to a country which people are fleeing themselves,” Zoran told openDemocracy.
He was due to be put on the same flight as Bahram but his ticket was cancelled after his lawyer’s intervention, though it’s unclear what, in the end, won over the Home Office.
Zoran had been shot at by an Iraqi police officer and is now disabled as a result. He says he was forced onto a boat across the Channel by armed smugglers. “We were living in a very difficult circumstances – we were tortured by smugglers – and now the government are doing the same. They are torturing us,” he said.
He says that, being Kurdish, he’s always fought for his freedom and he won’t stop now.
“I strongly reject the Rwandan government for making this deal. It is against basic human rights.”
“Priti Patel’s plans are racist and senseless,” says Zoe Gardner Head of Advocacy and Policy at Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the group representing Zoran. “And we know they would put Zoran and so many others who’ve sought safety here in danger.”
‘A new hell’
“They have escaped hell only to be threatened with a new hell,” said Karen Doyle, an organiser with the migrant rights activist group Movement for Justice (MFJ).
She says the detainees scheduled to fly on Tuesday’s flight are “terrified” – many have suffered deeply traumatic events in their home countries including torture and trafficking, and are now desperate.
None of the detainees she’s spoken to can see any scenario where they settle in Rwanda. “Many have said they will be dead before the plane touches the ground. The most likely outcome is that people will leave Rwanda as soon as they can, becoming prey to exploitation and abuse along the way.”
Doyle explains that this is exactly what happened with Israel’s attempt to send thousands to Rwanda in 2018: “The majority ended up leaving; many ended up enslaved in Libya. So whether or not Rwanda processes people’s claims is irrelevant. No one is staying in Rwanda.”
Her organisation is aware of Kurdish Iraqis, Iranians, Albanians, Sudanese, Egyptians, Syrians and at least one Afghan detainee who have been served removal directions for Rwanda. All are men.
Clare Moseley from Care4Calais has also been in touch with hundreds of asylum seekers who are scheduled to fly out on Tuesday. “They are all absolutely shocked and destroyed by the news – no one can really believe it,” she says.
Activists and lawyers still believe the flight may be delayed thanks to their legal challenges. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Care4Calais and Detention Action, along with four asylum seekers facing removal, had issued judicial review proceedings in the High Court.
On Friday, a judge rejected their injunction to stop the flight, but the groups say their application has already been granted to appeal the decision. The appeal will be held on Monday and a larger legal case against the scheme will be heard over the coming weeks.
Moseley believes the policy is a breach of refugee and human rights laws. She says refugees cannot be punished for entering the country unlawfully, and that they have a right to a fair trial, a proper hearing and access to lawyers. “We need to know more about whether asylum seekers will have access to these important rights [in Rwanda] before we simply send them there.”
Doyle from the MFJ called on companies involved in the scheme to pull out, and for trade unions to support workers who refuse to cooperate. This is the basis for the PCS challenge, as the union represents Home Office staff.
Bahram is still hoping he won’t be on Tuesday’s plane to Rwanda, but says it’s hard to stay positive. “To be honest with you, I am not feeling well at all. I am under an unbelievable amount of stress, but with the support of the people around me I’m just trying to do whatever I can so that this decision is reversed.”
* Names have been changed