The British Home Office has disputed Virgin Atlantic claims that it stopped Australian human rights lawyer Jen Robinson at the behest of security services.
The airline stopped Robinson, best known for her work on West Papua and WikiLeaks, last Thursday Australian time at Heathrow Airport and told her she was on an “inhibited list” that required approval from the Australian High Commission to return home. Robinson was later allowed to board her flight to Sydney via Hong Kong without any contact being made with Australia House.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has since said the Australian government knew nothing about the incident and had requested the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — initially suspected by Robinson of being behind the incident — to seek an explanation from the UK.
The term “inhibited” is used by the US Department of Homeland Security to refer to passengers who should not be given access to aircraft or “sterile” areas of international airports without additional on-the-spot government approval.
On the weekend, an Australian representative of the airline, after consultation with the airline’s head office in the UK, told Crikey that “security services” were responsible for the incident and directed further questions to the British Home Office. The company’s Australian office told Crikey that its UK head office had advised:
“… what happened with Ms Robinson was absolutely a matter of security so therefore something we can’t really comment on. As the airline we don’t make decisions on security issues like this, we only act on a response from the security services which is what happened with Ms Robinson last week. This was not an airline issue, it was a security issues and something that security services or the Home Office could perhaps comment on?”
However, overnight the UK Home Office rejected the airline’s claims. Simon Alford, of the Home Office’s press office, provided Crikey with a carefully worded rebuttal:
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“I have spoken to press office colleagues at Virgin who have informed me they do not comment on matters of security and are unclear over the comments attributed to them. Unless you can provide me with facts of UK Border Force involvement, I would suggest you speak to the Australian High Commission or BAA [the company that owns and operates Heathrow] for further clarification … this does not appear to be a matter in which we would ordinarily be involved.”
The denial continues the dance of responsibility over the incident in which no government, agency or company is willing to admit it played a role in “inhibiting” Robinson.
Nonetheless, Virgin Atlantic’s statement is significant in clearly stating that security services played a role in stopping Robinson. The airline also has the least reason to stop one of its passengers of its own volition; the only reason it would have done so is if it was concerned about the potential cost of taking a non-Australian to Australia only to find they will not be admitted here and need to be returned to their point of departure. Given that plainly does not apply to Robinson, Virgin’s statement makes sense.
The other alternative offered by the Home Office, that the airport owner stopped her, simply doesn’t accord with the facts recounted by Robinson.
As Crikey noted last week, the diffusion of responsibility among agencies for international travel and border protection allows sweeping deniability for the harassment of travellers. Media units are well aware that denials only need to be maintained for a limited period until the media cycle moves on.
Meantime, Robinson somehow seems to have stopped herself at Heathrow without any official involvement from anyone. Remarkable.
Further comment has been sought from the Home Office and Virgin Atlantic.