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24 July 2000

You’ll find no refuge here

The Afghan hijacking was a desperate plea for help. We were deaf to it

By Scarlett Maguire

When the Afghan hijackers landed in Britain in February of this year, they expected a hero’s welcome. They had freed nearly 170 people from an oppressive government whose appalling human rights record is known throughout the world. Surely Britain, with its ethical foreign policy and liberal traditions, would be on their side?

The hijackers, however, seriously miscalculated: far from being feted by their hosts, they are now locked up in Belmarsh high-security prison, awaiting trial. Worse, the passengers on their ill-fated flight face an equally harsh fate.

The Home Office recognises that most Afghans coming to this country seeking asylum are in genuine fear of persecution. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a country where arrests are arbitrary; where a team of Pakistani footballers on tour were arrested and had their heads shaved for wearing shorts. The legally dubious trials in the Taliban courts result in executions, floggings and amputations.

The record of the Taliban regime has meant that, in the first six months of 1999, for instance, only five of the 805 Afghan applications for asylum to this country were refused. Over the past few years, 93 per cent of the applicants from Afghanistan were given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. Yet as soon as it became known that February’s “hijack” was, in fact, a desperate bid for freedom by persecuted men, the Home Office appears to have been dominated by a tabloid agenda, treating not only the hijackers, but also their hostages, as criminals and potential scroungers. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, wasted no time in expressing his desire “to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable”.

To date, 73 of the hostages have returned to Afghanistan. The Home Office claims their return was voluntary, but evidence points to their being coerced. David Fazel was one of four Home Office interpreters sent to the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, where the passengers were kept while their fate was decided. Fazel has described his experience in a sworn affidavit. Before meeting the hijack victims, he and the rest of the team of interpreters were briefed by a senior immigration official, who said that the interpreters were to impress upon the Afghans that they were not welcome in Britain, but that they could easily return home.

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Assurances had been given to the Taliban that the people who were going to return immediately on the available plane were in no way involved in the hijacking. However, the passengers were told that, if they wished to remain, they would be moved to a detention centre and kept under lock and key as prisoners. As soon as their case had been dealt with and asylum refused, they would be sent back to Afghanistan whether they liked it or not. No guarantee would then be passed to the Taliban that these passengers were not involved in the hijacking.

The “interviewing” began at 10pm that evening. At that stage, only 17 people wanted to return to their home country. After more than four hours of harassment and intimidation, that number rose to 73. At no point were the passengers informed that they could have access to free legal advice. They were not made aware of any basic humanitarian rights that they may have had in Britain and were constantly reminded that not only the officials, but also everyone in Britain wanted them to go home. In fact, when Fazel told some of the Afghans that it would be possible to obtain legal advice on remaining in Britain, they did not believe him.

In the end, two men and their dependants were granted refugee status, but 27 cases were rejected on the grounds that the Home Secretary “was not satisfied that they have a well-founded fear of persecution by reason of their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Straw did consider whether there were other exceptional grounds for allowing the applicants to stay, but decided that “the public interest in deterring future hijacks for the purposes of claiming asylum is a very strong one and that these applicants should therefore not be given permission to stay”.

Those 27 Afghans are in hostels in London, and their case is being heard in London. Amnesty International immediately wrote to the Home Secretary, expressing its concern that Britain is not meeting its international obligations towards those in need of protection against persecution or other inhumane treatment. Amnesty specifically questioned Straw’s argument that, because the plane was on an internal flight in Afghanistan, “it seems inconceivable that persons on the flight intended to claim political asylum, unless, of course, they were complicit in the hijacking”. Yet, as Amnesty pointed out, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not require an asylum-seeker to have “embarked on a given journey with the intention of claiming asylum in order for a subsequent asylum application to be granted”.

In the light of the hijacking, Straw is talking about amending the 1951 convention: his intention, it is clear, is to tighten the rules of entry into this country. Jan Shaw, the refugee officer for Amnesty UK, argues that the convention should not in any way be tampered with, for it “remains the most important international instrument for the protection of those fleeing human rights violations”. This, it seems, is no recommendation in the eyes of our Home Secretary.