Several airlines involved in the recent evacuation from Kabul have been making money for years deporting vulnerable refugees back to Afghanistan.
Originally published by Corporate Watch.
Charter airlines Privilege Style, EuroAtlantic, Titan and Hi Fly have all carried out mass deportations of Afghan asylum seekers from Europe over the past few years.
Two commercial carriers involved in the evacuation mission, Turkish Airlines and SAS, have regularly deported Afghan asylum seekers over the past decade.
Three other airlines involved in the evacuation – TUI, AirTanker and Wamos – have been among those most active in carrying out mass deportations from the UK to other countries.
Each deportation charter flight cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, a significant amount of which will have profited the airlines involved.
In the past 20 years, only 15% of Afghan asylum seekers were granted refugee status or humanitarian protection when they first made their asylum claims. Over 15,000 people have been deported to the war zone since 2008.
The dramatic resurgence of the Taliban following the international troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last month triggered an immense evacuation effort that played out on screens across the world. At least 120,000 people were airlifted from Kabul in the scramble to rescue foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans before the 31 August deadline set by coalition governments. Ironically, many of the same airlines enrolled in the effort have been making money deporting Afghans from Europe for years, directly endangering the people they recently evacuated.
Here we look at a brief history of UK deportations to Afghanistan, the airlines carrying them out, and their subsequent role in the evacuation from Kabul. Our data is sourced from flight-tracking sites, deportation flight monitors DeportationWatch, No Border Assembly, Calais Migrant Solidarity, and aviation journalists and photographers.
Deportations to Afghanistan, 2001-2021
According to government figures, the Home Office refused the vast majority of Afghan asylum applications during the 20 years of occupation and war in Afghanistan. Only 8,869 out of 58,020 people, or 15%, were granted refugee status or humanitarian protection when they first made their asylum claims 1. Some others with access to good legal representation will have later been successful following lengthy and bureaucratic appeals – the Home Office does not tell us how many. Many unaccompanied teenagers were given limited permission to stay, usually for a couple of years, before later being targeted for deportation when they turned 18.
Over 15,000 Afghans have been forcibly returned to the war zone on mass deportation flights from the UK since 2008. This is a higher figure than any other European country. The UK along with Germany was Europe’s biggest contributor of troops throughout the war, though precise numbers deployed oscillated with various phases of the occupation.
The last mass deportation charter flight to Afghanistan from the UK was in 2015. Since then, individuals have been deported on commercial flights. Deportations to Afghanistan were justified on the grounds that the British and American occupation had made the country ‘safe’, despite the persistence of the Taliban and the extreme poverty brought about by decades of foreign occupation and conflict. Numerous cases were reported of individuals being executed or killed in bombings following their expulsion to the country, although there is no consistent post-deportation record-keeping. These individuals would still be alive had governments, immigration judges and airlines listened to the pleas of those who risked everything to come to Europe in search of safety.
Kamran: a case study
After a long and dangerous overland journey from Afghanistan, Kamran arrived alone in the Netherlands aged 13, with a good command of English and an eagerness to study and eventually attend university. The government categorised him as an adult, fast-tracking and rejecting his case within a month of arrival. With the European Dublin Regulation preventing multiple asylum claims, Kamran was then effectively unable to seek refuge in another EU country. Hidden in a lorry, he managed to travel to the UK, where he worked underground for poverty pay and constantly reassessed his options. Desperate to attend school, he eventually travelled to Denmark where he made another asylum claim, but his requests and appeals were refused. He returned to the Netherlands to try again, only to be repeatedly rejected. He is now in his twenties and still living illegally.
The majority of flights out of Kabul airport during the August evacuation were flown by militaries. However, processing hubs were set up in the Middle East from which the evacuees were resettled around the world via a civilian fleet. Flight-tracking site FlightRadar24 lists 49 airlines that were involved in these onward flights of evacuees.
Of those 49, we found charter airlines Privilege Style, EuroAtlantic, Titan and Hi Fly have carried out mass deportation charter flights from Europe to Afghanistan in recent years. Two airlines, Turkish and SAS, had deported people to Afghanistan on commercial flights. TUI, AirTanker and Wamos had all run other mass-deportation flights for the UK Home Office.
The Afghan charter deportation airlines
Privilege Style is one of the most active charter deportation airlines in Europe. According to campaigners, Privilege Style flew all 10 mass deportations to Afghanistan from Germany in 2020-21, including one as recently as July. Just a few weeks later, when the tide turned in favour of displaced Afghans, the airline began transporting people in the other direction. The company is believed to have carried out at least five evacuation flights with its Boeing 767 registered EC-LZO for both the British and Canadian governments.
Privilege Style clearly has no qualms about evacuating people at risk one day, then deporting them to danger the next. Notable in the flight records above is that the only other journeys the plane took in the two weeks during the evacuation operation were deportation charter flights for the UK Home Office to Zimbabwe and Ghana/Nigeria. This was despite campaigners warning the company that victims of torture were due to be on the flights and that anyone deported would be left destitute in those countries following arrival.
Privilege Style has shown itself to be totally unfazed by appeals on behalf of deportees. In December 2020 it brazenly flew the highly controversial #Jamaica50 flight for the UK Home Office despite a strong campaign that prompted the UK’s leading five deportation airlines to deny involvement and, according to campaigners, at least one of them to pull out.
For more information on Privilege Style and their work carrying out controversial deportations, see Corporate Watch’s recent investigation into the company.
Another airline profiting from instability in Afghanistan is a little-known Portuguese charter airline, EuroAtlantic Airways. EuroAtlantic have carried out four documented mass deportations to Afghanistan this year, coordinated by Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) on behalf of Austria and Sweden, with Bulgaria, Romania and Finland also contributing deportees.
Also among the 49 airlines engaged in the evacuation effort, their aircraft CS-TKS appears to have flown twice from Dubai to Birmingham on 23 & 26 August, and may have done further flights for the evacuation mission between Ramstein Air Base in Germany and other countries in the Middle East.
EuroAtlantic is a small carrier, whose fleet of eight aircraft with an average age of 20 years is almost as small and antiquated as Privilege Style’s. It is run by CEO Eugénio Fernandes.
British company Titan Airways is a long-time deportation profiteer, returning people to danger through countless collective expulsions for the UK and other European governments over the years. In 2020, Titan carried out at least 15 deportation charter flights to various destinations from the UK and Germany, and another three from the UK so far this year. In November 2019, Titan is known to have carried out two deportation flights to Afghanistan: one from Germany on the 7th, and another from Sweden on the 13th.
Titan is a charter airline based at London’s Stansted airport. Its clients include Royal Mail, tour operators, other airlines, corporate events, sports teams and VIPs, through to the military. It is owned by founder and Essex rich-lister, Gene Willson, whose son Alastair is now managing director. In March this year the Independent reported that Titan airways had begun leasing a second “Brexit jet” (G-XATW), emblazoned with a Union Jack, to be “used by the prime minister, government ministers and senior members of the royal household”.
Hi Fly, another Portuguese charter airline, is reported to have carried out a deportation charter flight to Afghanistan in February 2020 for Austria and Hungary. The same year, the airline flew six deportation charter flights for the UK Home Office, and have so far flown another to Zimbabwe on 21 July, 2021.
As part of the Afghan evacuation mission, Hi Fly appears to have flown a number of flights to Australia (with planes CS-TQY and 9H-TQZ), Canada and Germany (with CS-TRJ).
Hi Fly is run by the Portuguese Mirpuri family, whose foundation has spoken out against deportations and runs projects for refugee rights, perhaps in an effort to ‘offset’ their culpability for the lives they have damaged. The image-conscious company pulled back from deportations following Corporate Watch’s profile on the airline in 2020, but returned to the business this year with the Zimbabwe charter.
The commercial airlines: Turkish Airlines and SAS
Turkish Airlines is notorious among campaigners as a perennial deporter to Afghanistan via its commercial flights from countries including the UK, Norway, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark.
The airline’s involvement in the UK deportation business briefly caught the media’s attention in 2017 when passengers released footage of an Afghan asylum seeker’s violent treatment. The footage shows Tascor escorts restraining and hitting the deportee who screams “I can’t breathe” and asks witnesses to send footage to the press because he would not be safe in Afghanistan. Some horrified passengers tried to intervene, and the man was taken off the flight. On social media, one eyewitness said:
“the fact that the Turkish airline staff could actually see them violently handling the man, and were still aiding them by telling passengers we’re not allowed to record the incident on our phone, was disgusting.”
As a regular passenger rather than specialist charter airline, Turkish Airlines is more susceptible to protests by deportees or their supporters who can alert other passengers to what’s going on. Such protests have led to reports of Turkish Airlines pilots refusing to fly with the deportee on board. High profile cases involving the company include Samim Bigzad‘s successful resistance to his deportation on a flight from Heathrow in 2017, and activist Elin Ersson‘s 2018 intervention against an Afghan’s deportation from Gothenburg, which she filmed. This resistance is a key factor behind the general growth of charter deportations in the past fifteen years.
Turkish Airlines was among the 49 airlines involved in the recent evacuation mission, gaining publicity when one of its Afghan evacuees gave birth mid-air.
Also known as Scandinavian Airlines, SAS is another established passenger airline involved in the evacuation which is reported to have carried out deportations to Afghanistan for years. The company has carried out deportations to Afghanistan on its commercial flights from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. SAS is a 75-year old, publicly listed company headquartered in Stockholm. It has a fleet of around 130 aircraft.
Other major deportation airlines: TUI, Wamos and AirTanker
Tourism giant TUI’s subsidiary, TUI Airways, is by far the UK’s biggest deportation airline. In 2020, TUI flew 13 deportation charter flights for the Home Office, and has carried out 22 already this year, including the UK’s first charter deportations to Vietnam. Yet the pressure is mounting on TUI, with local ‘Stop TUI’ groups forming in cities across the UK, and protests taking place outside TUI travel agencies nationwide in August.
Several of TUI’s subsidiary airlines were reported to have been involved in the Afghan evacuation mission. For more on the company, see Corporate Watch’s in-depth profile.
AirTanker is a specialist aircraft leasing company primarily serving the military. It carried out five deportation charter flights for the Home Office in 2020, and an estimated 15 already in 2021, based on monitoring by campaigners. AirTanker has also flown at least seven charter deportations to Nigeria and Pakistan for the German and Austrian governments, most recently on 24 August.
AirTanker planes leased to the RAF were some of the few continuously evacuating people from Afghanistan to the UK, including the very first flight which landed at RAF Brize Norton on 17 August.
The company is a consortium of the biggest names in the European arms industry: Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Babcock, and Thales. Its headquarters are located at RAF Brize Norton. AirTanker has a decades-long contract to provide air-to-air refuelling services for the Royal Air Force, hence the name. However, it also operates charter flights and leases its aircraft to other airlines. One of their planes (ZZ-336), nicknamed the ‘Brexit jet’, was repainted in Union Jack livery in 2020 to “promote the UK around the world” at the request of Boris Johnson, notoriously costing tax-payers £900,000.
Another Spanish airline, Wamos appears to be one of the main private companies contracted by the British government for the evacuation programme, transporting 6,000 refugees to Britain in total.
Wamos recently carried out a controversial deportation charter flight for the Home Office to Jamaica on 11 August, where two men due to be on the flight attempted suicide. The company has also carried out numerous deportations to Pakistan this year on behalf of the German government, as well as one to Sri Lanka.
It is no accident that deportation profits are kept a secret. However, we do know that the average cost of a single charter deportation flight from the UK in 2020, mainly to other European countries, was £193,567. We can assume that the cost of a charter flight to a destination like Afghanistan would be considerably more expensive. A recent parliamentary information request in Germany reveals that the country’s deportations to Afghanistan in 2020 – all run by Privilege Style – cost €342,050 each. The cost of the airline’s ten charter flights to Afghanistan in the past couple of years would therefore be somewhere in the region of €3,240,500, a significant proportion of which would have lined the company’s pockets.
The deportation machine exists because there is profit to be made from it. From the airlines doing the physical task of expulsion, to the racist tabloids getting hits from xenophobic scare stories, the “hostile environment” is maintained by numerous corporations working together with governments. The momentary wave of sympathy evoked by the images of Afghans fleeing the Taliban is empty unless protection is granted to the thousands of Afghan asylum seekers who have been struggling here, and the many more who will try to come.
1 Several hundred people were also resettled under various schemes, including small numbers of minors in Calais.