Inside Esparto 11: The charter flight ejecting asylum seekers from the UK

Our investigation offers a rare and disquieting insight into a removals system usually shrouded in mystery

Reports Aaron Walawalkar and Jessica Purkiss, Liberty Investigates journalists; Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor; and Mark Townsend, Home Affairs editor of the Observer


At 7.15am, half an hour before charter flight Esparto 11 was due to take off, a detainee with a history of self-harm asked to use the plane bathroom.

The man was taken to the toilet by an officer – called an overseas escort – who held the door ajar with his foot. Minutes later, the escort looked in to see that the detainee had cut his wrist with a blade, according to a report they wrote that day obtained by Liberty Investigates and the Observer.

The escort pinned the detainee with his bodyweight. Once they had gained “control”, another officer squeezed into the bathroom and put a handcuff on the wrist the man had just cut, and used it to “[give] him pain”, according to the account.

It appears to be a reference to a special technique called pain-inducing restraint, which deliberately inflicts pain to gain submission – likely by twisting the cuff, or pushing it into the wrist. It is unclear whether the escorts warned him, as before the technique was applied.

Esparto 11 left Stansted on 12 August last year, the first in an unprecedented programme of flights chartered by a Home Office desperate to eject those who had recently arrived by Channel crossing. The plane took them not to their countries of origin, but to France and Germany.

One officer describes a self-inflicted cut on the detainee’s left wrist as “supperficial,” while another said it was “deep”

The UK had previously operated several charters a year under the Dublin Convention, the legal mechanism that enables EU governments to remove those seeking refuge to other member states where they’d previously registered.

Volunteer observers have reported that detainees are often fearful, worried about what awaits them in the next country – and that escorts use force significantly more often than on other types of deportation flight.


The number of flights returning asylum seekers to EU countries between August and December 2020

From August to December, in the run up to Brexit – when the Dublin rule would cease to apply – the Home Office ran a concentrated schedule of 19 “Esparto” flights triggering such distress among detainees in Brook House Immigration Removal Centre that two Independent Monitoring Boards wrote to the minister for immigration compliance to warn it amounted to inhumane treatment by the department.

Internal accounts written by escorts about the force they used during Esparto 11, obtained by Liberty Investigates and the Observer, alongside witness testimonies and statements from inspectors offer a rare and disquieting insight into a removals system usually shrouded in mystery.

While boarding 14 asylum seekers onto the Airbus A330 to Toulouse and Frankfurt, officers apparently inflicted force on six, including techniques that intentionally gave pain to two individuals deemed at risk of self-harm or suicide.

The material reveals other, deeper, issues. They shed light on how senior Home Office officials authorised a secret – possibly unlawful policy – under the cover of Covid-19. Introduced quietly after the first lockdown last March, the move meant they could rapidly deport asylum seekers who may have been trafficked and tortured. Detainees also sometimes could not access a lawyer before their flight.

The passengers we traced were vulnerable. Of those we managed to reach, all were from war-torn Sudan and South Sudan. Those who agreed to be interviewed claimed to be survivors of torture or trafficking. At least two would have been presumed eligible for refugee status had their claims been heard in the UK, according to current guidance.

The story of Esparto 11 also yields another fundamental question: Why is the world’s fifth richest economy so aggressively targeting a handful of vulnerable people who arrived seeking sanctuary?

Arrival in Kent

One night last June, Nazeer* stepped into an inflatable dinghy less than four metres long somewhere around the Calais coast. The boat heaved as he set off with 10 other passengers, powered by an outboard motor, he recalls.

Progress was slow because the dinghy was overloaded and the wind against them. By the time they caught sight of the Kent coast around 9am, the boat was filling with water.

When they finally landed, police picked them up. After several hours’ wait, they were driven to a holding facility at Yarl’s Wood, where they arrived hungry around 8pm. Nazeer was fingerprinted, his mobile confiscated, and he was summoned to speak by phone to an immigration official.

Nazeer had been through an ordeal barely imaginable to most in the UK, according to his account. Belonging to an ethnic minority in war-torn Sudan, Nazeer describes how he was falsely accused by authorities of aiding an opposition group. He was detained and beaten and – amid ongoing conflict – fled. On his journey to Europe, he was captured by traffickers, escaped, but then ended up forced into months of unpaid labour before fleeing once more.

Omar*, a fellow passenger aboard Esparto 11, belongs to another ethnic minority in Sudan, and has a similarly harrowing tale. Both are part of a group known as non-Arab Darfuris, and would normally be eligible for refugee status had their claims been heard in the UK. But checks on their fingerprints showed they had registered in other European countries on their way, so the Home Office applied to have them transferred under the Dublin rule.

A safeguard should have protected the men from removal, however – at least temporarily. The screening interview they took part in would normally include certain questions intended to flag trafficking concerns, which would trigger a pause in proceedings while officials assessed the credibility of the claims. This currently takes about 12 months. If confirmed as trafficking survivors, it could strengthen their asylum claims.

“Had the interview not been cut short, he would likely have been identified as a potential victim of trafficking”

Maria Thomas, Duncan Lewis Solicitors

But Omar would slip through this safety net. It appears he was caught up in a secret policy introduced by the Home Office in March to shorten the interviews, removing two key questions relevant to trafficking in an initiative the Home Office later claimed was to limit contact due to coronavirus.

Following a court hearing in November, the policy would be revealed and a judge would order the questions reinstated. But this would be months after Omar, Nazeer, and at least one other passenger of Esparto 11 claim to have been put through a truncated interview process.

The Home Office told us all the individuals in this story were asked questions designed to identify modern slavery. However, Omar claims his interview was cut short as he tried to describe his history.

There is no mention of Omar’s trafficking claims in his screening interview form. Officials summarised his reply to two key questions – “Why have you come to the UK?” and “Please outline your journey to the UK” – in a total of 11 words, suggesting the possible use of stock answers. In answer to whether he suffered exploitation during his journey, officials wrote “no”. Nazeer and another asylum seeker, Peter*, from South Sudan, insist they too were not given an opportunity to fully describe exploitation they suffered.

Maria Thomas, a lawyer on the team at Duncan Lewis that took the Home Office to court over the policy, believes it is “highly likely” Omar’s removal was unlawful. “Had the interview not been cut short, he would likely have been identified as a potential victim of trafficking, and would not have been removed pending the outcome of that claim,” she said.

The men were placed in asylum hotels, then in late July arrested and taken to Brook House where they were issued with removal directions.

Brook House Immigration Removal Centre

They should then have had access to a lawyer. The Home Office is obliged to give detainees 30 minutes of legal advice, according to guidance. In early August, many of those due on board Esparto 11 were frantically seeking legal hearings. In the end, according to a Guardian report, 19 asylum seekers originally due to fly were granted reprieve, three of whom won emergency out-of-hours legal challenges that ran late into the night of 11 August and the morning of 12 August.

But Nazeer, Omar and Peter were not so lucky. Nazeer did manage to speak to a lawyer who promised to take his case but, after sending his documents, he was met with bad news. “[The solicitor] said he could not start working on my file until after 12 August,” says Nazeer. Peter says he was never allocated a lawyer, and Omar claims to have been contacted by a solicitor only a day before departure.

A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said they were unable to verify anonymous claims but said the number of law firms providing specialist assistance had risen.

Nicola Burgess, legal director of JCWI, one of a number of organisations which helps asylum seekers in such circumstances, confirms its caseload at the time was overwhelming. “Towards the end of 2020, as the Government ramped up its removals programme to maximise returns to Europe while it still could, we received numerous requests for legal assistance. The demand far outstripped our ability to supply.”

"Brook House was a cauldron of despair”

Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice

The time Omar, Nazeer and Peter spent at Brook House was agonising amid what observers described in an IMB report as a pervasive atmosphere of “tension, fear and despair” caused by the accelerated programme of removals. Those assessed as “at risk” of self-harm or suicide if removal directions were served made up 16 to 20 percent of the centre’s population at this time, according to the Independent Monitoring Board for charter flights.

Observers from the IMB for Brook House noted apparent failures by the Home Office to identify vulnerable asylum seekers. Age disputes, trafficking and torture claims were often not assessed until “some time” after detainees had arrived at the detention centre. In mid-August, the waiting time for GP appointments to assess detainees’ torture claims grew to 21 days, they reported.


incidents of self-harm were recorded in Brook House in August 2020

Serco, which runs the centre, noted that the IMB “recognises that detainees are generally treated humanely” and found “generally positive” relationships between staff and residents. Nonetheless, self-harm was a daily occurrence – 44 incidents were recorded in August while 32 were on constant supervision by officers to prevent further harm across an average daily population of 92 detainees. “The Board struggles to convey how disturbing these numbers of detainees on constant supervision are,” wrote the observers.

As a result, said Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice which sends volunteer doctors into detention centres, it was the most distressing time at the detention centre that she and her colleagues had witnessed.

“With charter deportation flights every week, the likelihood of deportation was ever present, increasing our clients’ mental torment,” said Ginn. “Fellow detainees all around them were self-harming … Brook House was a cauldron of despair.”

Esparto 11 begins

They began gathering after midnight at a squat office block near Brook House. By 1.30am, 86 overseas escorts had been briefed.

Employed by private firm Mitie Care & Custody, which holds the Home Office contract for removal flights, those inside Spectrum House were warned that Esparto 11’s detainees would likely be disruptive. There was “no real lead from managers on the priority of detainee welfare” beyond a brief statement about being mindful of “detainees’ situations and needs”, noted an observer from HM Inspector of Prisons in its report on the flight.

Meanwhile, Brook House staff began removing detainees from their rooms, a process they call “extraction”. For some of them, officers wore riot gear.

Omar was asleep when four custody officers roused him at 1.30am. “But I have a doctor’s appointment on the 13th,” he recalls telling them, producing a letter which they looked at before leaving. As he waited, he began to shake with fear. At 2am, between eight and ten guards returned, he recalls. As they led him away, he heard voices screaming from the rooms and corridors around him.

Escorts arrived at handover points. Several detainees were “clearly distressed”, according to the inspector. At 3.25am, a young Iranian was brought down handcuffed and in tears. An interpreter tried to mediate, but the delicate conversation took place in a noisy reception area with 22 people present. The inspector deemed the sheer number of staff present throughout the morning “intimidating”.

A detainee was presented for handover with a bloody nose, dressed in a T-shirt and boxers

As removals were cancelled in 11th-hour court proceedings, communication sometimes broke down. At 5.15am, a detainee was presented for handover with a bloody nose, dressed in only a T-shirt and boxers. According to a senior escort’s account, the man had insisted to Brook House staff arriving in his room that night that his removal was cancelled.

The man – described as “calm and polite throughout” – was extracted anyway, during which his nose was injured, and restrained. An officer collected his belongings, to be told that his removal had indeed been cancelled. Only then were the restraints removed, they wrote. The detainee began suffering chest pains “caused by anxiety,” wrote an escort.

The senior escort wondered if the force used was too much. “I am concerned as to the confusion over whether his removal was cancelled or not. Had this been sorted from outset force would not had [sic] been used,” they wrote.

The Home Office told us that an internal inquiry found the use of force on this man to be reasonable, necessary and proportionate.

Reports sometimes varied. One says that the detainee with a bloody nose "appeared to be relief and happy" while another says he had "chest pains"

Two coaches and nine secure vans were waiting. Omar says he pleaded with an interpreter. “I would like the chance to work with a solicitor on my case,” he told them. But according to Omar, the interpreter warned him there would be consequences if he didn’t comply. “There was a Sudanese before you who resisted … They almost killed him … You are going to be killed if you do not accept,” he claims he was told. “I was grabbed from both sides and taken. I knew that if I resisted or I did not walk, then I would be forced into it, maybe beaten.”

Internal reports describe an incident the interpreter could have been referring to. Escorts’ accounts show that a Sudanese asylum seeker Jamal* showed reluctance to board a coach, shouting “no” and taking hold of a door handle. An officer placed a handcuff on Jamal, giving “a clear instruction for him to let go, or he would feel pain in his wrist”.

The escort wrote that Jamal then “thrashed his head” and tried to bite them. The officer then used the handcuff to apply pain. Jamal was “forced to his knees”, his arms restrained, and he was moved to a van.

Under guidance, officers should use verbal reasoning and de-escalation before resorting to force. But it is not clear if Jamal understood the escort’s “clear instruction”; he speaks little English and – though two interpreters attended the operation – the forms do not say if one was present during this incident to translate the warning. Jamal declined to be interviewed, saying he was traumatised.

Officers wrote variations on the phrase “this statement is true to best of my ability” 14 times across the 25 use of force forms

Joanne Caffrey, expert witness in the use of force and former police officer of 24 years, said even without a language barrier, stress can prevent detainees understanding warnings by causing auditory exclusion. “It’s as though you put your head in a bucket of water and somebody’s shouting commands at you,” she said.

Besides that, pain-inducing tactics can be risky. While waiting at Stansted Airport, a passenger with a history of self-harm was found to have a blade in his mouth. Escorts told him to spit it out, but he did not, so one of them applied the mandibular angle technique, which involves pressing down on a nerve behind the ear. If performed incorrectly, an officer can hit the vagus nerve or carotid artery causing paralysis or death, said Caffrey. Officers also should not apply pressure to the neck or face in the circumstances described in the accounts, because it “may cause the blade to be swallowed and cause serious or fatal injury”, she said.

“They were detained and handcuffed, and some of them were crying ... I saw that they were in pain”

Peter,* an Esparto 11 passenger

Once the detainees had arrived on the runway at Stansted Airport, they were called up to board the Airbus A330 by their manifest number. Nazeer was willing to board peacefully, he claims. “But … one person grabbed me from my right arm, the other my left arm, and somebody was pushing me in the back to get me to climb the stairs. It was humiliating and unnecessary,” he says. Escorts held the arms of all the detainees who boarded on foot. Half were in some form of restraint device. Jamal was carried, along with one other.

When boarding was complete, the atmosphere was harrowing, says Peter. “They were detained and handcuffed, and some of them were crying,” he said. He didn’t witness what had happened during others’ removals from Brook House but, he added: “I saw that they were in pain.”

HMIP observers are not routinely present to observe charter flights, and even when they are, they don’t always see the most distressing events. The inspector for Esparto 11 wrote that they “did not observe” the three incidents that involved applying pain through handcuffs – including the one described at the beginning of this article – and therefore “[could not] judge the operational requirement”.

Officers wrote variations on “all force used and witnessed was necessary, reasonable and proportionate” nine times

Caffrey said the internal reports written by escorts raised questions. Across 25 forms filled out by escorts to detail six incidents, a box was ticked to state force was used because of “non-compliance” in every single case. One used the phrase “all efforts to de-escalate situation were made through verbal reasoning”, without being specific. Officers wrote variations on “all force used and witnessed was necessary, reasonable and proportionate” nine times.

This made the documents seem like a “tick box exercise” used to justify force that officers were going to use anyway, she said. It was hard to tell from documents alone whether force deployed during Esparto 11 was lawful, but, she added: “Just because there’s a right to use the force doesn’t mean it’s right to keep doing it.”

A statement from the Home Office said it takes the health and wellbeing of detainees extremely seriously and undertakes individual risk assessments before all returns. It added: “On occasion, people with no right to be in the UK go to extreme lengths to prevent their removal by attempting to cause physical harm to officers or themselves. In these instances, force will be used sparingly as a last resort for their own and others’ protection.”

Nicola Burgess, legal director of JCWI, said the use of force against asylum seekers on board Esparto 11 was a violation of their rights and risked retraumatising them. The vulnerable cohort was being treated as a “political football”, she added, and theirs were not isolated incidents. “The story of Esparto 11 is a paradigm of the UK’s inhumane asylum system,” she said.

Mitie said that it followed strict government guidelines to ensure detainee safety. “All officers are specially trained in line with Home Office procedures on the use of restraint. This includes a focus on de-escalation techniques to ensure force is only applied when absolutely necessary.”

Yet Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for immigration detention, said: “These reports substantiate the worst fears of many with regards the way the Home Office treats these people. It denies them access to legal representation, it disregards their vulnerabilities, and it deems this type of force proportionate in order to remove them.

“This behaviour is barbaric and has no place in decent society. The Home Secretary has presided over this hostile environment and she should consider her position in light of these shocking reports.”

Drenched in rain, Omar gestured to the wooden crate and tarpaulin he now sleeps on. In his short life he has seen much, but its misery shows little sign of abating. “I feel very cold. I haven’t eaten anything since the morning,” he said.

Months after Esparto 11, Omar was tracked down to a European city that he requested remains anonymous because he feared another removal.

By rejecting all asylum claims made by people who cross the Channel, Patel wants future arrivals like Omar rapidly removed to any country that will accept them.

This central ambition could make flights like Esparto 11 the norm. Experts brand her plans unworkable, incoherent and cruel.

The Home Office is unrepentant. When independent monitors wrote to minister Chris Philp last October warning of “inhumane treatment” of detainees, he responded bullishly.

“The UK has a long and proud history of providing protection to those who need it,” wrote Philp, and the government “[stands] by our obligations to safeguard the most vulnerable people fleeing oppression, persecution and tyranny.”

When told of this, a note of irritation creeps into Omar’s voice. “I was persecuted and fleeing my country [and] was not offered any protection,” he says, before appearing to well up.

“To be allowed to stay somewhere that I can live like a normal human being, to establish a life, to have a family … Is that too much to ask?”

*Names changed to protect privacy

Home Office minister Chris Philp addresses Parliament. Credit: YouTube / Chris Philp

Mitie Care & Custody’s response:

Contacted for comment on this investigation, a spokesperson for Mitie Care & Custody said:

“We follow strict Government guidelines for all charter operations to ensure the safety of detainees. All officers are specially trained in line with Home Office procedures on the use of restraint and receive regular refresher training. This includes a focus on de-escalation techniques to ensure that force is only applied when absolutely necessary. Following every charter operation there is a comprehensive review documenting any areas for improvement.”

Serco’s response:

Steve Hewer, Serco Contract Director at Gatwick Immigration Removal Centre, said:

“We are pleased that the IMB recognises that detainees are generally treated humanely at Brook House in what was a challenging year with the impact of Covid.

“As the Board also notes, relationships between Serco officers and the detainees appear generally positive and they have highlighted that on numerous occasions Board members have recorded observations of detainees being treated with dignity and respect and have witnessed good interactions and relationships. Members have also recorded examples of detainees telling us that they feel they are treated well.

“Since we took over the management of Brook House, we have increased the number of staff and refreshed training, with a strong emphasis on safeguarding and staff support.”

  • If you are in the UK or Ireland and are having suicidal thoughts, suffering from anxiety or depression, or just want to talk, you can call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 116 123 or email or