The flight was Air France (AF) 1461 (small plane, maybe Boeing 777), from Heathrow terminal 4 at 6.40am on Monday 26th February*. I’m not sure if it was a flight exclusively for connections, but I had a connecting flight to Martinique and I know that a lot of the people sitting around me were flying on to Cameroon, with only a very brief time to change flights in Paris. I was sitting in seat 15B, in the middle seat on the left-hand side, (there was one set of three seats on each side of the aisle) and there were about eight rows of passengers behind me and then the rest of the plane behind them was empty (approximately six rows).
I can’t remember exactly what time it was that the man being deported was brought onto the plane, but I would guess that it was a good ten or fifteen minutes after all passengers had boarded as I had been talking to the man sitting next to me for some time already, and everyone was settled with their luggage stowed away. He was brought on by seven men via the back entrance to the plane. They were wearing shirts and trousers, a bit like officers in detention centres, but it wasn’t an obvious uniform because they all had different colours on and didn’t have any visible logos. While six of the men stayed at the back of the plane, one man came up to where the passengers were sitting and, row by row, explained that there was a “legal deportation” taking place and that we had nothing to worry about, and should just carry on our flight as normal. He told us several times not to turn around and look towards to back of the plane. I can’t remember whether he told us that the deportation was to Tunisia, but I think he must have done at some point for me to have known.
Throughout this the man being deported was crying out, sounding very distressed. At some points he shouted “I don’t want to go back to my country” but mostly he was making a wailing noise.
While the immigration man who seemed to have the job of talking to passengers continued speaking to each row moving towards the front of the plane, I stood up and tried to talk to other passengers and cabin crew. An English man in front of me complained to the cabin crew about the noise, asking why the airline agreed to conduct deportations on commercial flights. A Cameroonian man on the right-hand side in my row was talking to the cabin crew in French about what they were able to do – he later told me about his conversation with the cabin crew captain
who had told him that it was only the pilot who could decide whether or not to fly and that there was nothing they could do, though he (cabin manager) himself agreed with the complaints (I’m not sure whether on inhumane grounds or based on the argument that it’s unfair on passengers who’ve paid their good money for the flight etc. etc.). Other people around me were saying that it was “sad” but that we don’t know the whole story, and that there’s nothing we can do.
I was standing up and looking on my phone for information about what to do. I argued with the immigration man about how inhumane it was and said to the people around me that enough of us stood up then there was something we could do, and we could stop the flight. The man and cabin crew told me several times to sit down. The English man in front of me told them that I had a right to complain if I wanted to. The immigration man said I could but that if I didn’t sit down then I would be taken off the flight. I asked the cabin crew if I could speak to the pilot and they said it was too late and that I would have to wait until we landed. At this point I felt like they were going to just take me off the plane if I didn’t sit down so I sat down and very soon after the plane started moving for the taxi.
I can’t remember if there had been an empty seat next to the Cameroonian man sitting on the other side of the aisle in my row or whether the immigration man asked someone to move but he ended up sitting on the other side of the aisle to me, between me and the Cameroonian man and one other English man sitting on my side (I suspect he engineered it because I don’t remember seeing many empty seats towards the front of the plane). As we took off he was talking to the people around me. I argued with him a bit about the whole situation, and talked about people dying in these kinds of deportations and he said that that happened one time and it was before they had had proper training but now the training was so much improved etc. etc. He asked me
what my name was and I told him that I didn’t want to tell him, and he looked around at the other passengers with raised eyebrows saying “I’m just trying to be friendly!!” At one point after we had taken off the man being deported went quiet for a while and the immigration guy made a few sarcastic remarks to the passengers around him about how it was funny that he’d quietened down right after take-off.
When the seatbelt sign went off I got up pretending to go to the toilet to see what was happening at the back of the plane. Some of the cabin crew tried to get me to use the toilet at the front of the plane saying they had to bring the trolley down the aisle from the back, but I insisted and they didn’t try and stop me using the back toilet. At the back there were only three seats on the left-hand side for the last two or three rows because the toilet was on the right-hand side. The man being deported was in the last but one row in the middle seat. He was handcuffed to the chair by both wrists. There was an immigration man sat on either side of him, two standing up in the row behind him, and two standing up in front of him. Those standing up were all facing him and
leaning over so he was completely surrounded. I tried to record audios from the toilet but couldn’t really pick up what they were saying. The man looked very distressed and mentally unwell. The men around him were laughing and talking amongst themselves. At one point when I went past they were sort of slapping him on the shoulder as if they were all sharing a joke – I’m not sure if they were making fun of him or whether this was meant for the passengers’ benefit to make it look like they were all mates really and it was all a big joke that they were all part of, including the man being deported. When I was walking back down the plane I sat down in one of the empty seats between them and the passengers so that I could hear more of what was going on but was told
by a flight attendant that I couldn’t sit there because it was a “secured zone” (or something like that).
A bit later on I got up again and started the audio on my phone so it would record as I went past. As I went into the toilet I saw that the immigration men were all eating croissants and drinking coffee from the trolley, but still standing up surrounding the man. I came out of the toilet and started talking to him. I asked him if he was ok, and if there were any numbers he wanted to give me of people to contact to tell them what was happening. He seemed very out of it and I’m not sure how much he understood of what I was saying – he started crying out and saying that he didn’t want to go back to his country. At this point the immigration were standing there and let me talk to him. However I then asked him what his name was and they all started saying very quickly that I couldn’t ask that, and the man who had been talking to the passengers who was now standing around at the back of the plane tried to physically pull me away. I told him not to touch me but while this was happening he noticed that I was recording audio on my phone. He asked me where I was going on for a connecting flight and said that I wouldn’t be getting that flight (though I hadn’t told him where I was going) and that that was it now, he’d asked me several times but I’d continued to “try to disrupt a legal deportation” and that there would be police waiting for me in Paris and I would have to answer their questions (he didn’t say if they would be British/French). Several of the men said, “you can’t have those recordings” and a flight attendant added that that was what I had been doing earlier when I went to the toilet. They told me that I had to delete all recordings from that day immediately – they didn’t actually give me any legal basis at all for this but having talked about police on the other side and given the conviction in their voices, they were sufficiently intimidating for me to just want to delete the recordings at that point, especially since I hadn’t picked up very much. (When we landed in Paris no-one stopped or spoke to me at all).
At some point while all this was going on the man being deported shouted out a few times, “I’m not a terrorist!”. The immigration guys told me that I had upset him and that he had been calm and that now, by talking to him, I had made him distressed. The main immigration guy (the one who had been talking to the passengers) said to me, “this is what he’s like, he’s calling you a terrorist now!!”. (Just to clarify it was VERY clear to me that this is not what the man was saying at all, and when I said this to them, the other immigration guys insisted that I was mishearing…).
After the recordings they told me I had to sit back down now and had kind of physically formed a block so I couldn’t really speak to the man.
After this I got quite upset from the exasperation and anger, and when I sat back down the main immigration guy sat in his seat on the other side of the aisle and tried talking to me again in this whole “nice guy” mode, asking me why I was so upset and talking about how he was a decent guy and really cared but I just didn’t know the whole story about this man.
The English man sitting next to me said that he could see my point and that he was very pro-immigration but that he also felt that not knowing the back story to the man’s case he couldn’t protest the deportation.
When the plane landed the man being deported was taken off the plane immediately out of the back exit while the passengers waited.
As we were getting off I spoke some more to the Cameroonian man who told me that he had been told – either by the immigration man or the head of cabin crew… I wonder whether this is one if the things the escort man had been telling people – that the man was being deported for having raped a three-year-old girl. I asked to speak to the pilot who was saying goodbye to people as they got off the plane and asked him about agreeing to fly and explained (probably in a calmer way than I had tried to do at the beginning of the flight) about my concerns, basically trying to convince him not to fly if he gets asked again. He said that he only had the right not to fly if he thought that it was unsafe to take the person being deported. The head of cabin crew who was standing
next to him also joined the conversation and told me that I didn’t know what the man had done, saying that “you don’t get escorted by seven policemen if all you’ve done is shoplift”. I did feel like the pilot was much more open to the discussion than anyone else I’d spoken to on the flight, though I think had I framed it more as me feeling unsafe on the flight from the beginning then this would have been more persuasive to him and both cabin crew and passengers. At one point I had actually said to one flight attendant that I felt really uncomfortable with the situation and she assumed that I meant because I was scared of the man being deported, and told me not to worry because there were seven policemen with him.
[* Flight details changed to protect anonymity]