Major airlines are coming under increased pressure to end their role in deportation after an airline announced it would no longer carry failed asylum-seekers who are being forcibly removed from the United Kingdom.
The news will be welcomed by churches and church agencies amongst others who have campaigned on behalf of asylum seekers, and sometimes advocated civil disobedience to prevent their deportation.
XL Airways, which has a fleet of 24 aircraft, said it was opposed to the policy of deportation because it had "sympathy for all dispossessed people in the world".
Carriers including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are now under growing pressure to refuse to carry asylum-seekers being forcibly removed from Britain after activists threatened direct action over allegations that detainees are being abused.
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) said it would picket offices and launch a letter-writing campaign demanding that carriers halt the practice.
Last week, The Independent newspaper revealed that hundreds of failed asylum-seekers have claimed they have suffered physical and racial abuse during the removal process at the hands of private security guards.
The Government relies on airlines using chartered and scheduled aircraft to deport asylum-seekers who have failed to win a right to remain in the UK.
Gordon Brown said the Government would not halt the programme, despite growing evidence that Britain is also sending failed detainees to countries with repressive regimes. He said: "We have got to expel those people who come to our country but have got no justification being here."
But in an email to a campaign group which supports failed asylum seekers, XL said its chief executive had told the Government it had not "fully understood" the political dimensions of these flights. In February, one of its aircraft was used to deport 40 failed asylum-seekers to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the Government's "operation castor".
A spokesman for the airline told The Independent the Government had been informed of its decision. It is hoped that other airlines will make their own objections public.
It is not known how many airlines have contracted to carry failed asylum-seekers but it is estimated that the Government pays out several million pounds each year. Emma Ginn, of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, said: "It's time airlines rethink what they are doing. Shareholders and customers will be horrified by the reality of what happens to deportees taken for these flights."
The Borders and Immigration Agency, the government body that has responsibility for forced removals, has refused to disclose details, requested under the Freedom of Information Act, about deportation flights. The agency said: "If we were to disclose the information you have requested, this would prejudice the number of airlines willing to contract with the agency on charter operations and could drive up the cost of such operations. In addition, the release of information could damage commercially those airlines who offer this service."
British Airways and Virgin, who were contacted by The Independent, said their aircraft had been used for the purposes of escorted deportations as they were under a legal obligation to return failed asylum-seekers. A Virgin spokesperson said: "That is a matter for the Home Office, who makes immigration policy. We are simply not qualified to make those decisions."
British Airways refused to say how many removals it carried out each year, but said it adopted a policy of permitting one escorted or two unescorted removals per flight : "It is UK law and we comply with it – it's like asking whether we are happy paying income tax."
But a Home Office spokesman said the Borders and Immigration Agency only contracted with airlines willing to operate removal flights. He added: "The agency uses agents/brokers to arrange both charter and scheduled removals. Airline captains have the right to refuse carriage of a passenger and will do so if they feel appropriate for security or commercial reasons."