On 12 August 2020 at 7.48am the first of a series of Home Office flights carrying asylum seekers left Stansted. This is the harrowing story of the hours before it took off and the anguish of those on board

At 7.15am, half an hour before charter flight Esparto 11 took off from Stansted airport, a detainee with a documented history of self-harm asked to use the plane’s bathroom. He was taken to the toilet by an escort working for the Home Office who held the door ajar with his foot and, after several minutes, peered inside to discover the detainee had slashed his wrist with a blade. Pinning the man with his body weight to gain “control”, another officer squeezed into the bathroom and placed a handcuff on the wrist. According to an account written by officers, the handcuff was used to “[give] him pain”, a reference to a restraint technique which involves deliberately inflicting suffering to gain submission. In this case, most likely by twisting the cuff or pushing it into the wrist.

Esparto 11 left Stansted on 12 August last year, the first in an unprecedented programme of charters by a Home Office desperate to eject those who had recently arrived by crossing the Channel. Accompanied by scores of escorts, just 14 asylum seekers would be pressed on board the 295-seat aircraft. Bound for Toulouse and Frankfurt, Esparto 11 would dump its detainees thousands of miles from home. It is not known what happened to the man who self-harmed in the toilet. What unfolds on such flights usually remains shrouded in mystery. Yet internal accounts written by Esparto 11’s escorts, seen by the Observer and Liberty Investigates, a journalism unit of the human rights organisation Liberty, along with testimony from detainees and statements from inspectors, offer a rare and disquieting insight into the programme.

While boarding the Airbus A330, officers allegedly inflicted force on six asylum seekers, including techniques that intentionally gave pain to two individuals deemed at risk of self-harm or suicide. Witness accounts chronicle alleged threats of violence and suggest safeguarding processes to protect Esparto 11’s passengers fell by the wayside. One detainee who was “not resisting, just reluctant” to board a coach to the aircraft was forced to his knees and subjected to pain. The material reveals other, deeper, issues. It sheds light on how senior Home Office officials authorised a secret – possibly unlawful policy – under cover of Covid-19 to expel vulnerable individuals. Introduced quietly after the March 2020 lockdown, the move meant they could rapidly deport asylum seekers who may have been trafficked and tortured.

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