A mock trial held the Home Office to account for racism and human rights violations last week. Here, Runnymede Researcher Laurie Mompelat explains why the action was important.
Artists, community organisers and others put the Home Office ‘on trial’ last Monday, reacting to the criminalisation of migrants under the Hostile Environment policy. The activists came from a wide spectrum of specialisms, including LGBT, violence against women and girls (VAWG), anti-racism and migrant organising groups. Together they held a space to platform their vision for a fairer future and a 'world without borders'. Their demands include: an end to the Hostile Environment; an end to detention; and immediate investigations into cases of sexual abuse against women in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.
This timely action comes as the Government and Home Office have largely failed to be accountable for the effects of their policies. This weekend it was revealed that Home Office staff are being hired out to ‘hunt for migrants’. Last year, they were responsible for deporting more than 27 people every day. At least 11 members of the Windrush generation have died since being wrongfully deported and there have been at least 34 deaths in immigration detention centres since 1989. Mass deportation charter flights resumed to Jamaica this month, for the first time since the Windrush scandal.
In this context, creative actions like the one organised on Monday raise important questions. What does it mean to abide by rules - laws and policies - that have normalised human rights violations for people whose ‘wrongdoing’ is to have been born elsewhere? And what does in mean for race equality in Britain?
In the UK, migration doesn’t mean mobility, but problematic mobility. Anti-immigration policies reply to very clear public pressures, which have associated the migration of non-white people into Britain with a danger to British prosperity and civilization. Regardless of the fact that Britain established its economic prosperity over centuries of colonial exploitation, racial stereotypes inherited from this very history shape who is seen as most fit for a job; who should be stopped and searched; and who is welcome and who isn’t.
This is why a black person who grew up here can be labelled a migrant, while a white person from Canada is an expatriate. That said, there are white migrant groups which do, of course, experience xenophobia. The firm belief that certain people simply shouldn’t be in Britain is what has led the Government to set dystopian immigration targets, so unattainable that people can now be deported for failing ‘good character’ tests or committing driving offences.
One of the participants of Monday’s action, from Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike, commented: “The Windrush scandal continues. The Home Office will not say how many have been illegally deported. Few, if any people have been compensated for what they have suffered and thousands are still in limbo waiting for their status to be confirmed.’
The mock trial featured a wide range of testimonies from people who have experienced immigration detention, as well as a theatrical performance exposing how the Home Office train their staff, and performances by ‘Potent Whisper’ and the All African Women’s Group. Participants mobilised political analysis to draw the link between colonial violence, racism of the border regime, and violation of international human rights law to make a final judgment on the Home Office: guilty.
The initiative stems from a long legacy of communities holding authorities accountable for violent immigration policies, whether it was the People’s Tribunal on Immigration and Asylum in 1993 or 2018’s People’s Permanent Tribunal. Such initiatives often testify of migrant communities’ agency and resilience to assert their voices and demands in a country that has erased their contribution and punished their presence. ‘When there is no justice, when the system is rigged, we make our own justice.’ - said the organisers of Monday’s action.
Britain likes to think of itself as the cradle of human rights law: the first country to abolish slavery, a place of equal treatment before the law for people of different ethnicities, genders, and class backgrounds. Yet very few of those rights we now enjoy were granted willingly. Britain has a long history of activists fighting unfair systems and facing prosecutions from the establishment to demand and create the justice we are now grateful for. This applies to the women’s vote, but also to our race equality laws. It is in large part because of the work of black and minority ethnic activists and the social movements they created that we can write reports on racism in Britain and work to hold the Government accountable for ongoing disparities in our society.
When policies such as the Hostile Environment then prove themselves to be so abusive and dehumanising that people in detention try to commit suicide or start hunger strikes, it is surely time to wonder. Is this the justice we want to see? And if not, what are the steps we can all take to move to a different place?
When the Government is left with no choice but to lie about deportees’ backgrounds to justify their policies, it is surely time to worry. The Hostile Environment is upheld by structural racism. And until we challenge it at its root, we can’t expect things to get better any time soon.