Between Monday 23rd and Tuesday 24th August, multiple stories were published across the media alleging that as many as six individuals on the government’s ‘No Fly List’ had attempted to flee to the UK from Afghanistan, and that one individual had in fact made it to Birmingham airport. Upon arrival, that individual was found to ‘no longer be of interest’, and was free to proceed.

The No Fly List

Britain’s ‘No Fly List’ refers to its Authority to Carry scheme. The Authority to Carry scheme stipulates that:

  • The Home Secretary may impose measures on and prevent entry/exit of individuals or designated groups of individuals;
  • Passenger carriers (including planes, ships and trains) must to seek authorisation to carry individuals who fall under such designated groups;
  • Passenger carriers are liable for failing to seek authorisation or to comply with the scheme;
  • Passenger carriers must enable data sharing on inbound and outbound passengers with the government if requested.

The ‘No Fly List’ does not only apply to individuals suspected of having any relation to ‘terrorism’ offences necessarily, and includes those who would otherwise be turned away at the border – for example for travelling on invalid documentation.

The Labour government under Gordon Brown first announced ‘No Fly Lists’ in 2010 for individuals coming in to the UK, following the attempted bombing of a plane by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – also known as the ‘underwear bomber’ on Christmas day 2009.

An already-existing Home Office ‘Watchlist’ was used as the basis for the new No Fly List, as well as for a second list of individuals to be special to enhanced screening before entering the UK.

In 2012, the No Fly List was put on a statutory footing as the ‘Authority to Carry’ scheme under the Security and Travel Bans Authority to Carry Scheme 2012, which required passenger carriers to provide information and seek permission to bring passengers into the UK.

The Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015 expanded the Authority to Carry scheme to cover passengers departing Britain as well as leaving, as well as expanding its scope.

Between 2015 to June 2021, the Authority to Carry scheme was used to refuse authority to carry on over 8,200 occasions, and included ‘around 200 individuals excluded from the UK, around 3,300 individuals previously deported from the UK, and more than 4,700 individuals using invalid, lost, stolen or cancelled travel documents.’


Little opportunity for redress

Despite stirring fear and confusion, the stories on the Afghans shed very little light on how the No Fly List operates

The UK’s No Fly List is informed by data collected through Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records handled through passenger carriers – e.g. airlines. Passenger Name Records can be transferred to UK authorities, as well as across the EU, the Europol security agency or other ‘third countries’, raising unsettling questions about the sharing and usage of passenger data across borders, as well as the possibility of people finding themselves placed on the list in a case of mistaken identity.

And with the UK set to abandon GDPR data regulation laws we should be deeply concerned about the prospect of protections for passenger data being watered down further.

The opportunities for redress for those who find themselves on the No Fly List appear minimal. Government documents merely mention that ‘administrative arrangements [are] in place to provide for timely review of individuals’ enquiries/complaints about inclusion on the No Fly List’ – a bureaucratic post hoc solution, with little concern at the impact on people finding themselves barred from entering or leaving the UK. Effectively, the only defence against being placed on the No Fly List is to first discover yourself on it – likely after having been blocked at the border.  

The US’ version of the No Fly List was deemed to be unconstitutional in 2014, on the basis that ‘The absence of any meaningful procedures to afford [individuals] the opportunity to contest their placement on the no-fly list violates [their] rights to procedural due process’.

A similar ruling was issued to the FBI watchlist, vindicating campaigners arguing that the watchlist flagging system was secretive and without clear methodology.


Conflating refugees with terrorism 

Even in spite of the fact that the individual who reached Birmingham posed no threat and was no longer subject to checks, the story of their arrival was clearly intended to stoke fear about the supposed ‘threat’ of Afghan refugees arriving into Britain.

In the words of one director of the Henry Jackson Society during an interview with rightwing outlet GB News on the Tuesday: “We should be very very careful this is a dangerous part of the world with people there who are fully signed up members of international jihad trying to do us harm”.

Comments from ministers in some of the coverage of the story also indicate that the issue of national security and No Fly Lists is, and may continue to be, used to deflect criticism over the slow pace of evacuations from Afghanistan.

The Times piece on the story, for example, quotes a Home Office minister as stating that ‘[MPs] must be “mindful” of people who pose a threat to Britain and an armed forces minister emphasising that “checks are entirely necessary because there are people trying to take advantage of this process to get into the UK to cause us harm.”

The framing of counter-terrorism in Britain has long relied on the conflation of refugees and asylum seekers with terrorism, and many of the most draconian ‘counter-terror’ measures have been levied at migrants and foreign nationals.

This spate of stories comes in a context where a slight majority of the British population support refugee resettlement, while the government has dithered on the issue, or attempted to divide up Afghan refugees between those who actively supported Britain’s army there, and those who did not.

We should remain vigilant of attempts to stoke fear of refugees as a return to the hysteria that accompanied Syrian refugees in Europe at the middle of the last decade, or which may lead into even further securitisation of Britain’s borders.


Image courtesy of Flickr/Håkan Dahlström


(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)