As dawn broke at London’s Stansted Airport on the Thursday before last, a dozen Home Office security vans raced towards a Government-chartered plane waiting on the Tarmac in a quiet spot near the perimeter fence.
In each of the 12 vans sat a single Albanian migrant who had been in Britain for a matter of days, after taking a traffickers’ boat from France to the Kent coast.
The nine men and three women were being fast-tracked home on a flight to the Albanian capital Tirana, in an undoubted triumph for the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
It was the first time the Government, struggling with a record number of boat arrivals this year, had achieved what it had long promised Tory voters: double-quick deportations of migrants who slip into the UK illegally by sea.
Elton and Lodjan are just two of the 10,000 Albanians to cross the Channel this year, but as word spreads of their summary treatment at the hands of the British immigration system many others may be deterred from making the trip
Among those frogmarched to the plane from the Home Office vans on the morning of October 13 were a 27-year-old electrician called Elton, and Lodjan, a builder of 19, who had both arrived bedraggled in Dover three days earlier after nearly drowning when their overcrowded rubber dinghy from Dunkirk ran out of fuel.
The Mail has now heard the extraordinary inside story of how the two came to be sent home under a ‘rapid removal’ pilot scheme which was — until the resignation last week of Ms Braverman — about to become common practice.
Elton and Lodjan are just two of the 10,000 Albanians to cross the Channel this year, but as word spreads of their summary treatment at the hands of the British immigration system many others may be deterred from making the trip.
After all, both men are thousands of pounds out of pocket after they each paid traffickers £4,000 for a place on a boat that turned out to be a fruitless journey across the Channel.
Elton, who speaks good English and says he studied it at university, first resolved to head for Britain after losing his job in Tirana.
‘My boss said he was cutting back staff,’ he explained when the Mail tracked him down there.
He bought a ticket for the three-day bus ride to northern France and made his way to Dunkirk, where a Kurdish trafficker had promised to put him on a boat to England in a deal arranged by Elton’s cousin in the UK.
In Dunkirk, he slept on the streets until he got the call telling him that his crossing was imminent. Saturday, October 8, dawned bright and sunny and he went to a meeting point at a migrants’ camp four miles from the city where 100 people were waiting to travel to the UK.
The traffickers instructed their customers to use a location pin on a map they called up on their mobile phones to find the dinghy, hidden in the sands, which they would have to assemble, inflate, fit with an outboard motor, and launch by themselves
From the camp, they were shepherded by a traffickers’ guide to a shopping centre, before being ordered on to the free public bus service to Loon-Plage, a beach between Dunkirk and Calais routinely used for launching boats to Britain.
In Tirana this week, Elton recalled how, at the end of the bus route, the guide took them to a forest half an hour’s walk from Loon-Plage. They were to hide under the trees until they got a mobile phone call notifying them that the boat was ready. ‘We waited all night,’ he says. ‘It was very cold.’
Lodjan, meanwhile, was also in the forest waiting for a boat. On October 4, four days previously, he had bought a £250 bus ticket from Tirana to Dunkirk.
After a night in a cheap hotel, he had also been directed by his trafficker (a Kurd paid cash by Lodjan’s relatives in the UK) to get on a bus to Loon-Plage. ‘All my friends had gone to England, and I wanted to join them,’ he says.
‘I worked in construction since I was 14. I was earning £7 a day. My aim in the UK was to help my parents, who earn little money in a clothing factory in Tirana, and make them proud of me.’
So there they were, about to sail to Britain on a dangerous rubber boat. It was during the afternoon on Sunday, October 9, that the call came for them, and 65 other migrants, to gather at the beach in preparation for their crossing.
The traffickers instructed their customers to use a location pin on a map they called up on their mobile phones to find the dinghy, hidden in the sands, which they would have to assemble, inflate, fit with an outboard motor, and launch by themselves.
In Dunkirk, he slept on the streets until he got the call telling him that his crossing was imminent. Saturday, October 8, dawned bright and sunny and he went to a meeting point at a migrants’ camp four miles from the city where 100 people were waiting to travel to the UK. A migrant camp is seen above at Loon Beach near Dunkirk last year
‘We set off towards England at 5.30pm,’ says Elton. ‘There were 11 other Albanians on board, as well as some Indian and Iraqi Kurd families with 13 children. It was overcrowded with 67 of us, but what could we do?’
The boat — with a Kurdish trafficker at the helm — reached English waters within three hours. It was then that the outboard motor ran out of petrol, leaving the vessel floundering in huge waves.
The panic-stricken migrants immediately made mobile calls to the emergency line in Britain, just as they are instructed to do by traffickers and France-based charities that assist migrants. Children were screaming and mothers crying as the flimsy craft took on water. Lodjan, who cannot swim and had not been given a lifejacket by the traffickers, was sure he would drown.
Then, 15 minutes after the emergency call, a Border Force vessel hove into view. It took them on board and headed back to Dover, stopping twice on the way to rescue migrants from two other boats, before arriving in port four hours later. ‘There were 240 on the Border Force boat,’ says Elton. ‘We could hardly fit in.’
On that Sunday alone, 25 traffickers’ boats carrying 1,065 adults and children were dispatched to the Kent coast, overwhelming Home Office staff as they struggled to find accommodation for them.
After making landfall, Elton and Lodjan, who had met on the boat, were processed by the immigration system. Each migrant was given a plastic wristband with two numbers on it: the first denoting which boat they had travelled in (861 for both Elton and Lodjan because theirs was the 861st boat to reach Britain this year) and a personal number: Elton’s was 17, and Lodjan’s 54.
In the next few hours, they were strip-searched, issued with government-issue grey tracksuits and open-toed slippers, and their clothes and personal possessions, including watches and mobile phones, were confiscated and put in blue plastic bags.
Then, 15 minutes after the emergency call, a Border Force vessel hove into view. It took them on board and headed back to Dover, stopping twice on the way to rescue migrants from two other boats, before arriving in port four hours later. A Border Force boat is pictured bringing migrants into Dover in September
Their passports were placed in a white zip folder, with their personal number on, and taken away for scrutiny by officials. After a night trying to sleep on the floor in the Dover port migrants’ holding area, they were body-searched again before being told to queue with hundreds of other migrants for buses to the main processing centre 80 minutes’ drive away at a former RAF camp in Manston.
Manston is housing at least 3,000 migrants, three times its official capacity, because of the surging numbers. Border Force unions have complained that overcrowding has made it unsanitary and the Home Office confirmed last week that the potentially lethal bacteria infection diphtheria has broken out.
There, they were taken to a large gym along with 300 other migrants from Dover port to await fingerprinting. ‘It was so crowded with just a narrow corridor to squeeze through people to reach the toilet. They gave us a single blanket each, no mattress or pillow. We lay down on the hard wood floor but couldn’t sleep,’ says Elton.
Over the next two days, the two young men were moved from room to room and tent to tent on the base. But at midday on Wednesday, October 12, Elton, Lodjan, and ten other Albanians, were singled out by officials and told to sit on chairs in a corner of a brick building.
They were then called individually for an interview with a female Border Force official who asked each one: ‘Why did you travel to the UK?’
Elton says: ‘I told her I was alone in Albania without a family. I said my mother had died 12 years ago, and I never learned the identity of my father. The official asked ten questions in 15 minutes. I was extremely tired. I did not ask for asylum, nor did she mention the option to me. At the end she told me to return to my seat.’
Lodjan was interviewed by a middle-aged male Border Force officer. ‘I told him that I wanted to come to the UK for a better life and I had relatives living in Barking, London, who would get me work as a builder,’ he says. ‘I did not say I wanted to claim asylum and he didn’t ask me if I wanted to.’
The 12 of them remained waiting in the corner of the building until 10pm, after the processing centre had closed. ‘Other people had left on coaches to hotels,’ says Elton.
‘We were all alone, and I was getting suspicious. When we asked for a lawyer, no one answered. When we questioned where everyone else had gone, one woman Border Force official told me: ‘Everyone is different here, you’re not all the same.’ ‘
Because the two Albanians had not claimed asylum, under the fledgling Home Office pilot scheme they were deemed liable for immediate deportation. The scheme is aimed at stopping Albanian economic migrants claiming they are fleeing war or persecution to win sanctuary in Britain when there has been no conflict in the Balkans for 25 years.
Manston (pictured above) is housing at least 3,000 migrants, three times its official capacity, because of the surging numbers. Border Force unions have complained that overcrowding has made it unsanitary and the Home Office confirmed last week that the potentially lethal bacteria infection diphtheria has broken out
It was late on the Wednesday night, three days after their arrival in Dover, that the Albanians were taken one by one to what they describe as a ‘control room’.
‘There were two guards behind a chair and the Border Force official sitting in it. He gave me a piece of paper with typed English words and an official-looking stamp on the top,’ says Elton.
It was a Home Office deportation notice, which said — not that the Albanians understood it at the time — ‘We have now given directions for your removal from the UK on a flight to Tirana at 7.45 tomorrow, October 13.’
Outside the building at Manston, 12 security vans fitted with CCTV cameras were already waiting in a line to begin their journey back to Tirana. Each of the migrants was put in one of the vehicles with three guards by their side. Lodjan recalls: ‘When I asked them where we were going, the guards lied, saying we were driving to another interview. They told me to sleep. The journey would take two-and-a-half hours.
‘When I said I was frightened of being sent back to Albania, they told me I was not returning there.I woke up to hear the guards in my van saying, ‘We’re at the airport.’ I knew something bad was happening.’
At Stansted, the 12 Albanians were taken by their guards from vans to the plane, where they found 18 other passengers. These were convicted criminals being returned to Tirana after serving their UK sentences.
Elton says: ‘It was a huge plane with an upper deck where Lodjan and I were put to sit.
‘I think it was a jumbo, with room for 300 people, but there were only 30 passengers.’
Seven female cabin crew, in smart suits and speaking Spanish, were also in attendance. Once the plane set off (on time), they served the deported Albanians hot sausages and chocolates. It was the first decent food Elton and Lodjan say they had eaten since leaving France on a boat.
The 36 Home Office guards from the Manston security vehicles were on board too. And they had not finished their work.
When the plane landed at Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport two-and-a-half hours later, the guards marched the Albanian migrants to the door, to be greeted by local law enforcement officers.
They led them to a special airport police station, funded by the British, dedicated to processing returning Albanian criminals. There, the migrants were given back their passports, which had been confiscated at Dover, and their blue bags of possessions still wet from the sea crossing.
The passports had been stamped with a notice from the Albanian government banning any of them from returning to the Schengen area of Europe for the next three years, a restriction that effectively stops Elton and Lodjan from travelling back to the UK.
Although these young men (who appear decent hard workers) won’t want to hear it, if the Home Office succeeds in expanding its rapid removal operation, so making would-be migrants realise the UK is not the soft touch it has been for so long, a problem that has worried ordinary Britons and plagued successive governments for decades might at last be solved.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
Part of the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group