Content note: this article contains reference to suicide
Two weeks ago, the government deported 13 people to Jamaica. After the media flurry, Zita Holbourne, national chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC), documents the harrowing details of the deportations, and explains why the fight must continue.
Around a month ago, I and other anti-racist campaigners started to receive calls from people saying they or their loved ones had been detained, or that immigration officers were showing up at their homes. I immediately knew, even before I had heard of anyone receiving a removal notice, that there must be another mass deportation to Jamaica.
Two weeks later, 13 people were deported – down from the 57 who were scheduled to be removed from the UK via a charter flight. In the wake of the deportations, it is important we continue to document the actions of the Home Office, the impact on deportees and their families, and how the deportations link more broadly to hostile environment.
Who was scheduled to be deported?
All those scheduled for deportation were men. A small number of people who I spoke to had been transferred directly from prison. But most were people who had long since served their sentence, had been rehabilitated, and were working and raising families. Almost all had come to the UK as children, or in their early 20s. One person said they had been convicted under the now defunct 'joint enterprise law', and that they were a victim of modern day slavery. Another claimed they were the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
How did it impact on their families?
Those scheduled for deportation faced separation from their families here in the UK – parents, siblings, partners and children – one person even had a British mother, and all their siblings are British.
The loved ones who contacted me were confused and distraught. People were asking how this could be happening in the middle of a pandemic, and just before Christmas. Almost all had children, who were devastatingly impacted. Some partners of those affected had been to the reporting centre – their children with them – and had waited outside for hours not knowing their partner had been detained. They had to go home without them, whilst trying to explain where daddy was (of the 57 booked on the flight, all were men).
One little boy impacted gave evidence to a judge via letter. I spoke to that brave little boy, and he said that he would like to speak to the person who made the decision to deport his daddy, because they are ripping families apart. He asked if he would be next.
How were they treated before their deportation?
Deportees unanimously reported that they were treated inhumanely and unfairly. Many people told me that they could not access their lawyers, or didn’t have them at all – despite the government’s suggestion that they had 'months' to get legal representation. The computer room at Colnbrook Detention Centre was also allegedly locked as a Covid-19 measure. This meant that people could not do research to find a lawyer or prepare their case – they could not access printers, fax machines or phones, and their own phones had been taken away upon detainment.
One man told me that three days after asking an immigration officer to fax a form to his lawyer, it still had not been received. Another man said that despite having asked to seek asylum, he was not given the form as is the process – but instead given a list of six law firms to call. He said he called all six, and all said they couldn’t help him. A number of others said that the caseworker they were assigned did not answer the phone or respond to them.
Deportees’ health and wellbeing was of great concern. On the day the flight was scheduled to take off, one man tried to take his own life and was taken to hospital at 7pm, then returned to the detention centre at 1am. Others had medical conditions that meant that should they fly, they would be at risk.
What about coronavirus?
All of those who contacted us raised concerns about inadequate Covid measures: reports of no masks, everyone mixing with no social distancing, no sanitation, and outbreaks of coronavirus at at least two detention centres. In one wing, the person with coronavirus was only provided with medical assistance when they collapsed in their cell. Then everyone else was locked into the wing, with no special cleaning or adequate PPE. On arrival at detention centres, they said that only temperatures were taken – no Covid tests – despite the fact that people can be carriers with no symptoms, and a high temperature is only one symptom. This should be of particular concern because black people are up to four times as likely to contract and die of coronavirus, and so are in the high-risk group.
Some of those booked on the flight had other conditions that put them at high risk. The process of transferring them to detention, then in vehicles cuffed to escorts, then putting them on a long-haul flight chained to two private security guards, did not comply with Covid safety measures, particularly during a lockdown. One person was found to have coronavirus in arrival in Jamaica.
How does this link to Windrush and the hostile environment?
The government has claimed that these deportations were not related to the Windrush generation or scandal, but campaigners like myself believe they are directly related. The reason many Jamaicans live here in the UK is directly linked to Britain’s history of enslavement of African people, colonialism and Empire – people were invited from the Caribbean to help the UK recover after WWII, and were faced with horrific racism when they arrived. This month’s deportees will have family in the UK who are Windrush migrants. They are the descendants of the Windrush generation.
The Windrush Lessons Learned review was published in the middle of the first lockdown, and concluded that the Home Office was institutionally ignorant of racism. The report’s 30 recommendations, including Home Office training on histories of colonialism, have still not been implemented. Meanwhile, the fact that 44 of this month’s detainees were eventually removed from the flight suggests that the Home Office has in fact not learned from Windrush.
What was the impact of protest?
Black communities were quite rightly outraged by the planned deportations – as were our allies. Ninety black public figures and celebrities co-signed a letter calling on complicit airlines to halt such flights, more than 60 MPs and peers signed a letter to the Home Secretary calling for the flight to be cancelled, and a letter by NGOs, lawyers, barristers and QCs highlighted the fact that the deportations were unlawful, unjust and racist. BARAC’s petition opposing charter flight mass deportation also reached 185,000 signatures.
Many black and migrant rights groups and ordinary members of the public in their thousands joined the campaign – united in the knowledge that this deportation represented a breach of human rights. With 44 people removed from the flight, it appears that to some extent, protest was effective.
The fight continues
More broadly, what is needed is a change to the law which allows this to happen. There is an ongoing legal case regarding the human rights of children and Windrush survivors, and campaigners also wrote an open letter to the Home Secretary about her attempts to speak on behalf of us. Whilst there was a tremendous effort by campaigners, lawyers, race and migrant rights groups, communities and the general public in relation to this deportation flight – the fight isn’t over.
Race Matters has reached out to the Home Office for comment.
Header illustration by Zita Holbourne