Flying without pride: How British Airways is complicit in the deportation of LGBTQ asylum seekers

Flying without pride: How British Airways is complicit in the deportation of LGBTQ asylum seekers
Comment: As British Airways celebrates its 100th birthday, the airline's history of facilitating the Home Office's criminalisation and de-humanisation of LGBTQ migrants comes to the forefront, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
22 Aug, 2019
British Airways are celebrating their 100th birthday at the end of this month [Getty]
British Airways are celebrating their 100th birthday next week and are showcasing "love-letters" to Britain from public figures, BA staff, and the wider public. What is missing from the company's expensive and glossy campaign - "The BA 100" - and the festivities that come with it, is their history of facilitating the Home Office's criminalisation and de-humanisation of migrants through deportation, at times even during flights filled with travellers and holidaymakers.

In response, the collective Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, have mobilised their own campaign to mark the centenary of the airline company.

The group, which was inspired by the 1980s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners collective, have been gathering letters from migrants, BA staff, customers, artists, activists and others, all demanding that BA ends their involvement in the mistreatment of migrants and participation in deportations.

"We don't know what British values BA think they are celebrating with this centenary campaign, but we won't let them whitewash their legacy of supporting the racist hostile environment and enabling the Windrush scandal by claiming to embody them," LGSMigrants spokesperson Sam Björn said.

The group has led a similar campaign in the past when, alongside others, they forced Virgin Atlantic to cut contractual ties with the Home Office, and therefore no longer deport individuals.

This action is important because it is a recognition that we cannot allow companies to carry on business as usual whilst they take part in the degrading practice of deportations.

It becomes even more significant when such companies like BA decide to run a hypocritical PR stunt that highlights the supposed "open-minded, pioneering and welcoming place" that Britain is, and which the airline claims to espouse as a core value that it is celebrating through the centenary.

Complicity is bad enough but running such an ad campaign only reinforces the role of BA in the continued imperialist hierarchy of human worth: open-mindedness and welcoming spirit only applies to some people, to some passports, to some nationalities.

For others, for the racialised, the poor, those from the global south, there is none of the above, but only repression, violence, and border guards – a truer representation, perhaps, of some of the values that Britain continues to spread around the world.

BA is happy to champion certain forms of liberation such as LGBTQ rights but this seems to apply little when it involves migrant LGBTQ people who face imprisonment or death

Furthermore, the entire affair demonstrates the industry’s desires for profit over people. BA is happy to champion certain forms of liberation such as LGBTQ rights – or at least a very watered down, liberal version – but this seems to apply little when it involves migrant LGBTQ people who face imprisonment or death if deported to their homelands.

Between 2015 and 2017, over 3,500 people submitted asylum claims based on sexual orientation. There are around over 70 countries where LGBTQ relations are illegalised, more than half of those were colonised by Britain (and often, Britain was involved in imposing those legislations, as in the case of India for example).

The rainbow flags flown by BA during pride season are not only hollow forms of solidarity but feel like cynical moves to 'pinkwash' their participation in sending LGBTQ migrants back into the hands of violent homophobic regimes. As members of Survivors Speak Out put it, "People are escaping fire in their country of origin to seek safety but, unfortunately they are being sent back to die from the same fire by the UK Home Office with the complicity of British Airways."

BA came under similar criticism last year when it sponsored Pride in London, Brighton and Hove. They were met with protest action by LGSMigrants and others, who highlighted the hypocritical nature of the sponsorship but also, the attempts of capitalist co-option by companies like BA over such a significant space of resistance as Pride, which began in 1969 as a riot. Resistance is commodified, hollowed out, and sold back to those who are prepared to close their eyes in the face of violence and injustice meted out against those they can choose not to see.

Whilst I do not like to entertain the idea that equality, inclusion and freedom hold nationalistic characteristic – as expressed in so-called British Values - I would say that the actions of LGSMigrants, migrant communities, allies and BA staff resisting the inhumane practices of the Home Office, are certainly ones that we should all hope to adopt and celebrate. These are the people we should be taking guidance from as far as the values that this country should wish to represent.

Resistance is beautiful

Resistance and solidarity are beautiful, they are far more likely to bring people together. There have been many powerful actions taken in recent years in opposition to the hostile environment policies, which intensified under Theresa May's government. From the huge demonstrations outside Yarls Wood detention centre, to the #Stansted15 action which stopped a flight filled with migrants from being deported, and even a single student in Sweden who prevented the forced removal of an Afghan asylum seeker, people are refusing silence and complicity, and are rising up.

They recognise that the indignity and violence of xenophobia and the racism against migrants is a crucial element of a much broader system of repression which moves from the criminalisation of racialised communities to the repression of dissent.

The Stansted 15 for example were tried under laws first normalised in the context of the so-called war on terror, which is really a war on Muslims. The stripping of nationality and deportation is quickly moving from being used against migrants to then being used against dual-nationals, or even potential dual nationals. The fight against deportations is one step on the road towards creating a better, fairer, more inclusive, and just society. And that road, today, goes through BA.

I'd rather not take part in the celebration of the airline's birthday, and instead channel my energy towards ensuring that our political system stops depriving many migrants of celebrating theirs.

All the letters shared so far are available to view here.  

For more information on the campaign: / Twitter: @lgsmigrants /

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.