Today at 3:30pm, a specially chartered Border Agency flight using the call sign PVT030 will take off from an undisclosed London airport and head east towards Colombo. Those on board will include visa over-stayers, a handful of convicted criminals and dozens of terrified, predominantly Tamil refugees who fear they will be horrifically abused when they land.
The government maintains that it only ever returns people it knows will be safe from harm and that failed asylum seekers on board those flights will not be ill-treated. But Mrs Rajendran knows those assurances mean little once you land in Colombo. She first fled her homeland in 2001 after she was arrested and beaten following the death of her husband, a low ranking member of the Tamil Tigers.
She failed to persuade the asylum tribunal that her life was in danger and she was returned in early 2009, just as the brutal 30-year war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers came to its bloody conclusion.
Within minutes of touching down she had been detained.
“I was taken away at the airport and interrogated for 24 hours,” Mrs Rajendran, a slight 49-year-old woman who speaks almost at a whisper, told The Independent. “Then I was taken to another place. They started ill-treating me there. I was kicked, punched, they stripped me. I was sexually assaulted and raped.”
Her experience still clearly haunts her to this day and Mrs Rajendran is reluctant to go into details. She constantly fidgets and avoids looking men in the eye. A glance at her medical file explains why. Throughout her ordeal she was regularly beaten with an iron rod and she was raped multiple times by her guards. Her body bears testament to her abuse – her forearms and legs are littered with livid defence wounds whilst her chest area is covered in deep scratches that were left by her rapists.
What makes Mrs Rajendran’s experience so damning is that she managed to escape to Britain once more where an asylum tribunal eventually accepted that she had been telling the truth and granted her refugee status. Only when she was tortured for a second time did we finally believe her.
If her case was a one-off it might be a tragic but excusable by-product of the inevitably flawed asylum system. Deciding who is at risk and who is lying in an inherently difficult thing to do. But the evidence coming out of Sri Lanka of the systemic abuse meted out towards predominantly Tamil returnees is so damning it should make the Coalition Government think twice. Instead, they have increased the frequency of deportation flights since the war’s end.
Multiple human rights groups have documented cases where those returning to Sri Lanka have been severely tortured. Human Rights Watch has detailed 13 credible cases where failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Europe have been returned and tortured since the end of the civil war in 2009. Freedom from Torture, which specialises in compiling independent medical reports of torture victims, has uncovered a further 24 cases where voluntary returnees have been tortured and managed to escape once more to Britain. And these are just the ones we know about because the victim has managed to escape their abusers a second time. The problem is so endemic that medical experts at Freedom from Torture say the referral rate from Sri Lanka is the highest they have seen from any country since the group was founded in 1985.
And still the flights continue.
Lawyers for a number of forcible returnees are going to the High Court in a bid to try and get the flights stopped with a last minute injunction.
“The burden of proof falls squarely on the appellant to make their case and those seeking asylum are often poorly represented,” explains Kulasegaram Geetharthanan, from Jein Solicitors in Lewisham. “You can have very good asylum claims that fall down because the representation wasn’t good enough. You have to remember many of these people are traumatised, they don’t speak good English and they have little spare cash.”
The courts have previously expressed concern that the torture allegations are credible but only a seismic policy shift at the Home Office, which is under political pressure to increase expulsions, will make any real difference.
For those on board today’s flights, misery and fear has set in. “It’s almost like a funeral here,” says Muralitharan Chinasamy, a 32-year-old failed asylum seeker who spoke to The Independent over the phone from Tinsley House, the removal centre next to Gatwick. “Everybody is crying, moaning and I am determined not to go back.”
Mr Chinasamy claims his life would be in danger because he was a member of the Tamil Tiger’s political and financial wings before he fled after he was arrested and tortured by a pro-government militia.
“I’m pretty sure not just me, many of us will be stopped at the airport or arrested soon afterwards,” he said. “I beg the government to reconsider their decision and look into our cases again.”
Mrs Rajendran can count herself lucky that, with her temporary papers, she is no longer at risk of being deported. But she remains deeply depressed about the future.
“I feel safe and it’s true I’m given asylum,” she says. “But it’s too late. My life has been destroyed both physically and mentally. I have now been tortured two times. I’m not sure I will ever recover from this now or in the future.”
Returning migrants: Deportation flights
Deportation flights have had a deeply chequered history over the past decade as successive governments become increasingly reliant on charter planes – usually run by private security companies – to return migrants to their home nations.
Iraq and Afghanistan are both popular places for charter planes during times of relative tranquillity whilst Pakistan, the Congo and East Africa have remained regular destinations for such flights. Prior to the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Britain was reluctant to deport too many Tamils. But since the end of official hostilities in 2009, charter deportations have restarted at a pace. (The Independent)