Image Credit: Kristian Buus
“These flights take place under the cover of darkness, in a remote part of the airport. No witnesses. No accountability.”
On the night of 28 March 2017, 15 activists cut a one metre square hole in the perimeter fence of Stansted airport and locked themselves together around a Boeing 767, chartered by the Home Office to deport migrants back to Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Those on board faced harm and, in some case, even death upon their arrival.
The collective, then only known as the campaign group End Deportations, had spent all day at a location in Oxfordshire practicing the action, honing their muscle memory. On the minibus to Stansted Airport they read out testimonies of migrants who were due to be on that flight, the stories of which had moved the 15 to be sure that this action was required. Wearing bright pink hats and dis-playing a “mass deportations kill” banner, it took ten hours for the authorities to remove them from the plane. Four activists locked themselves around the front wheel, while the rest constructed a two metre pyramid out of scaffolding under the plane’s left wing and locked themselves to it. Their action had been successful: the flight never took off, and 60 migrants were given a reprieve to stay in the UK. This action was certainly by no means a minor or insignificant one. It was clear the activists would face consequences. But none of them could have dreamed what would happen next.
Laura Clayson is one of those activists, who are now well known in the UK press as the Stansted 15. Now 28, Laura works in sustainability and is a former President of Lancaster University Students’ Union. Alongside her fellow defendants, Laura spent nine long weeks on trial at Chelmsford Crown Court,charged with intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, contrary to section 1(2) (b) of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, anti-terror legislation that had been introduced in the wake of the Lockerbie Bombing. This is the first time that this much harsher anti-terror legislation has been used against an act of civil disobedience, perhaps signalling a dangerous precedent from the state of a crack down on the right to protest. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) applied to the Attorney General, a government MP, to escalate the charge so that it “properly reflect[ed] the criminality” of the action. The trial was the first one held in the UK in decades to be observed by Amnesty International, who described the eventual conviction of all 15 activists as a “crushing blow for human rights in the UK.” All 15 were found guilty; three received suspended sentences, while the rest – including Laura – were given 12 month community orders.
All Images: Kristian Buus
Like the other 14 activists, Laura got involved because she simply felt she had no other choice. “It was the stories of the people who were due to be deported on this flight,” Laura told me, “they are why I felt compelled to take this action”. The 15 became aware of these stories through a group called Detained Voices: “They are a collective who support people with experience of detention centres to share their stories. They do this by taking verbatim statements from those currently or previously held inside, or their family members, and then putting them online to give them the opportunity to use their voices and share what is happening. It’s important because otherwise it’s a very invisiblising and silencing process that they’re going through.”
There were three stories in particular that moved the 15 to take action.“One of them was of a Nigerian woman who was due to be on the flight,who said that her ex-husband knew she was being deported,and that he would try to kill her once she arrived in Nigeria. ”This woman was forced to marry her husband in an arranged marriage. She had four children with him who were still in Nigeria, being looked after by a friend. “She came to the UK because she believed she would be able to live freely as a lesbian” explains Laura. “Nigeria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for LGBT+ people. Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group [(UKLGIG)] published a report in 2016 about the experiences of LGBT+people within detention. A lesbian shared her experience in that report and it really stuck with me because it spoke of her being held in a compound in Nigeria and being repeatedly sexually assaulted by various men.” The report, called No Safe Refuge, conducted 22 in-depth interviews with LGBT+ asylum seekers, and found that they face discrimination and harassment at UK detention centres, with staff failing to protect them from abuse.
The Nigerian woman’s story is shattering. She was refused asylum – twice – due to her sexuality. She worries about who will look after her children if her husband kills her: “I thought in the UK I would be able to be lesbian and live free. But now they are trying to deport me to a country where I will not be safe because of my sexuality.” She doesn’t ask that the Home Office spare her life for her, but for her children. “I am begging.”
In 2010, the UKLGIG exposed that 98-99 per cent of lesbian and gay asylum seekers were refused asylum. As a queer person herself, this is something that Laura was moved to respond to: “The Home Office often deport LGBT+ asylum seekers to dangerous circumstances, and we know of people who have never been heard from again after their forcible removal from the UK. Naturally I felt very concerned.” The 15 included members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, a migrant solidarity group inspired by the group of queer activists who supported the miners during the 1984/85 strike.
The second of the stories is of a Ghanaian man who had been living in the UK in asylum for 18 years. His wife, brother, and family are all here. In 2012 he applied to the Home Office as an overstayer, and after a long, drawn-out process, he was re-fused and told to report to an immigration centre every fortnight. His sister died, and he missed one appointment. He was ordered straight to an immigration centre in Croydon, where he was then ordered to board a flight that night. “At the time of the action, people were meant to be given a five-day notice period for charter flight deportations,which this person clearly did not receive” explains Laura. The Home Office has since updated its policy to seven calendar days if you are not detained, and 72 hours (including at least two working days) if you are. While the Ghanaian’s flight ticket was cancelled that time, he was put back on the Stansted flight a couple of months later. “If they take me back to Ghana I will kill myself” his story is titled. It’s a damming indictment from someone inside the system: “The Home Office don’t respect me.”
The story of a 21 year old was the third tale that moved Laura to action. A resident of the UK for five years, both his parents were British citizens. But because he was now no longer a child, the Home Office were deporting him. He had no one in Nigeria. “I am in fear to go back to Nigeria; there is fighting over land. They killed my brother. They killed my grandfather.”
For Laura, these stories sum up everything that is wrong with the UK’s hostile environment policy. “The stories really show some of the very hostile and violent aspects of the policy, where people are blocked from access to justice and forcibly sent away.” The prisons watchdog last year found that migrants were restrained “with little justification”, and that the use of restraint belts was “excessive”. Another report by the Charter Flight Monitoring Team (CFMT) declared that migrants were being “treated as commodities” during deportation flights. The Home Office responded to the findings with a lip service statement that claimed they were taking this matter seriously while failing to engage with the issue.
Laura describes treatment of migrants as “inhumane.” She speaks of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man who was unlawfully killed in 2010 after he was restrained by three G4S guards face down and handcuffed from behind, restricting his ability to breathe. This happened on a commercial British Airways flight, in the early evening, surrounded by people. “You’re killing me” he shouted. “What’s been happening with people where there aren’t those witnesses?” Laura postulates of the night time, chartered flights of the kind the 15 stopped. “Where it’s not in public, where it is covered up. We know from reports and testimonies that people are violently forced onto these flights, and they are subject to racist and misogynistic abuse on board. These are people that are a part of our communities, our family circles and friend groups. Deportation charter flights are part of a wider system of racial inequality in the UK - a system that allows people to be targeted based on their perceived nationality to fill seats on a plane. I just felt that as a result of that I needed to take action.”
I asked Laura for some words to describe the Home Office. “Cruel. Inhumane. Violent.” In a follow-up email, she lists some more: racist; homophobic; target driven. Abhorrent.
Of the 60 migrants aboard that flight,11 are currently still in the UK. Four of those have been given indefinite leave to remain, with seven cases still ongoing. In at least four out of those 60 cases, the Home Office got it wrong. Without the actions of the 15 these people would have been removed from the country, potentially be subject to abuse, harm, and even death. Thanks to the actions of the 15, one of those four was able to be by his partner’s side as she gave birth to their daughter. “The fact that 11 people are still in the country just shows that they should never have been given a ticket for that flight in the first place! How were they ever given a ticket? And these are people that we know about. People that represent the stories of thousands of others who have been wrongfully deported.
"In 2016, a statistic came out that 68 per cent of initial asylum applications are refused, but upon appeal nearly half of them are successful. The Home Office is a very target driven entity.” The government considers the Stansted 15 to be criminals; Laura considers the government to be criminal. “We took the action to prevent a greater crime. There are rare circumstances in the UK where you have the legal right to do something that would normally be thought of as breaking the law.You’re justified because you’re acting to prevent a greater harm. We intervened to stop an injustice, and now we’re being criminalised for that act of solidarity.” In the trial, the judge instructed the jury to disregard all evidence that the 15 acted to stop human rights abuses.“It felt incredibly politically motivated."
When the CPS charged the 15 under harsher anti-terror legislation, Laura was devastated. “I can see where I was at the moment that I read the email, and just being like ‘oh my God’. We didn’t even know straight away what the charge was going to be, we just got an email from our lawyers saying the CPS had applied to the Attorney General to escalate your charge.” On 6 February, the day the 15 were sentenced, UN human rights experts released a statement urging the UK to stop the “disproportionate” use of security laws to prosecute peaceful protesters.
Laura suggests that the use of these laws to prosecute peaceful protesters has “quite chilling” implications for civil disobedience in the UK. While observing the trial, “Amnesty were talking about how there’s a trend across Europe of criminalisation of solidarity with migrants and undocumented folk. In Hungary, providing support to refugees and migrants is a criminal offence that can land you in prison for up to a year. Also in Switzerland, there are people that have been prosecuted for giving shelter to migrants who otherwise would be homeless.” It’s not just the UK then,but an anti-migrant trend of populism that’s spreading like wildfire across Europe. “It’s important not to see our prosecution as distinct from a legal system that allows people to be snatched from their homes in raids and incarcerate people without a time limit. It’s a window onto what other people are experiencing at the hands of the state. Every single one of us should be quite worried about democracy.”
The Stansted 15 were first put on trial back in March 2018, but it quickly collapsed. “The jury were sworn in and we were writing notes, which legally you’re allowed to do. Especially when you know you’re facing a trial of a couple of months you need to be able to remember stuff.” The jury, however, weren’t very happy with the note taking. “The judge sat everybody down and was like, I’ve had a complaint from the members of the jury that notes were being taken during jury selection, I want those notes turned over to me right now.” The judge passed the notes onto the prosecution, and claimed they could be used to illegally interfere with the jury. The jury were discharged and the case postponed for six months. The subsequent investigation into the notes found no wrongdoing.
In Laura’s view, the judge was biased against them, and they tried to get him removed. “The ludicrous thing about the legal system is that if you want a judge to step back from a case it has to be that judge [who decides] and it’s up to them if they want to or not, so he was like no, I disagree, I don’t believe I have been biased, so I’m not going to recuse myself.” It’s still a hard subject for Laura to talk about: “I have to not think about that too much to be honest, because I can’t deal with how different the outcome could have been.”
After dropping her life for two months and experiencing the ins and outs of the UK legal system, Laura has some choice words for it as well. She thinks it’s been heavily affected by cuts, and that it’s “a system that isn’t set up forgiving justice to people that deserve to have justice. If that were the case then those who were due to be on that flight would have been the people prosecuting the Home Office for their mistreatment, not us being prosecuted by the state.” The trial obviously took its toll on Laura and the 15, but the running theme throughout our chat is that she doesn’t want their experiences to be the centre of people’s outrage. “We had a really difficult experience, but the people that we took the action in solidarity with have a really horrific time of this system. People are held in detention for indefinite periods of time, their ability to access justice is blocked, some people can’t get the legal representation they need because of legal aid cuts, and it’s really hard to be able to meet with the free legal representative in detention centres because there’s so many people that need to meet with them.
“When they’re coming into a detention centre weekly, but you’ve been given a ticket for a charter flight for like a week’s time, you might not be able to get an appointment for two weeks, and that’s your ability to have your case heard taken away from you.” The whole reason the 15 took this action is because they needed to stop injustice towards migrants. She doesn’t want that to get lost now. “People are treated like prisoners. They’re just in the country trying to live their lives. They’re in a state of limbo... If we had gone to prison, we’d have been given a time frame of how long it would be until we were released, whereas people that are held in detention, at the moment, that’s for indefinite periods of time.” It “terrifies” her that the Home Office puts people in that position.
Some may describe the actions of the Stansted 15 as extreme. Laura rejects this entirely. For her, it’s the actions of the Home Office that are extreme. “If intervening to stop an injustice is extreme then I feel really concerned about the route that society is taking. What I feel is extreme is the fact that it is possible for people to be torn from their homes and from our communities to be detained for an indefinite period of time in detention centres that are worse than prisons.” At the heart of the extremities of the state is the hostile environment policy. “Deportations and the hostile environment in general are cruel and inhumane” explains Laura. “The hostile environment has taken borders beyond the parameters of the state and has forced people who have taken on public roles to become border guards and en-act border violence in places like healthcare and education... this system feels extreme, the action didn’t feel extreme. If our action can be described as extreme then it’s because that action was required because we’ve reached a point where the status quo is so extreme.”
Laura’s still going to carry on with activism. She’s planning to organise and focus on background logistics, and is going to be volunteering with South London Refugee Association. No more tying herself to a plane. What’s her answer then to what must be the ultimate question: if Laura had been sent to prison, does she still think she’d have done this action? Would that be a price worth paying? “I find answering this question quite hard because so much has happened. If I went back to that time when I made this decision I have no doubt that I would do it back then, but given the experience that I’ve had of the legal system and everything that’s happened since then, I couldn’t put my friends and family through it again... but I have no regrets about taking this action and being part of it because it felt really important. It was absolutely necessary. I have no regrets.”
And that’s the thing about Laura Clayson: it’s not about her, it’s about others. And she’s right, because really, it isn’t about her or the 15. It’s about the almost 25 000 people that the Home Office keeps in detention centres, held indefinitely under the fear of being deported to harm and death. These people are humans that the state has decided are lesser. Laura’s right – we really all should be scared.