On March 28th 2017, 15 activists from End Deportations, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSMigrants) and Plane Stupid locked on around a Home Office charter flight due to remove around 60 people to Nigeria and Ghana as it stood on the runway at Stansted Airport. It was the first time a mass deportation flight had been prevented. Today they were found guilty of endangering an airport under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act. Jo Ram, one of the activists and a member of the Red Pepper editorial collective, explores Britain’s border crimes and explains why the group took action.
It’s dawn. There’s a thump at your door. You’re forcibly, and violently, removed from your home and taken to a detention centre, perhaps hundreds of miles away. You arrive at a training event you’ve been told is obligatory. It’s a trap. You apply for asylum because your sexuality endangers your life in the country you were born in. The state claims you’ve faked your relationship. Your mother and young sister are granted asylum. They’re allowed to stay, but you’re not. You’re held in a detention centre. For ‘administrative’ purposes. With up to 650 others. It feels like a prison. It looks like a prison. It’s surrounded by barbed wire. You’re abused. Verbally and physically. By other inmates and guards. The food is appalling. You’re denied access to medical care. You’re not told how long you’re being held for. The uncertainty is Unbearable.
You’re served papers informing you that you are being deported. Or, you’re told you’re on the reserve list. You might be forced onto a plane. You might not. Perhaps you navigate the complexities of the appeal process. Maybe you are one of the very few people who manages to contact an immigration lawyer. There is no time. You’re told you can continue your appeal once you’ve been removed. You’re handcuffed. Two, possibly three, Tascor security guards accompany you. They work long hours for low pay. They might have had plans. Then their shift changed. Either way, they have no training in restraint in confined spaces. They have been recorded using threatening racist and sexist language, and that’s when there were observers on the Plane.
Mass deportations, operating from the UK since 2001, connect the institutional racism of the British state, with the violence of the prison industrial complex, colonialism (and its particular legacy of homophobia), the racism of climate change and a government and press eager to engage in divisive and destructive populist political spectacle. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, when Home Secretary from 2010 -2016, oversaw the implementation of some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades. Her department defended immigration detention centres, renewing contracts with the private contractor, Serco, despite reports of inhumane conditions and sexual violence. The UK has the largest immigration detention estate in Europe, controlled and run by private security firms. It is an extension of what Angela Davis describes as the prison industrial complex, and it is big business. This is where we disappear people, like magic, rather than address deeper challenges.
Theresa May introduced new rules that split up an estimated 33,000 families in the UK who failed to meet minimum income requirements. Her legislation was designed in her words to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants with a package of measures that also included a requirement that landlords check on the immigration status of prospective tenants. In 2016 May’s policies brought Britain’s borders – long de-territorialised and re-territorialised in airports and other transit points – to schools, playgrounds, hospitals, workplaces and to the streets where homelessness charities have collaborated with the police in immigration raids. If you have sought asylum in the UK you should know that, not only are you unwanted, you might be questioned at any turn. For people who have lived and worked here for decades, built homes, relationships and families, no aspect of their life is safe: from hospital visits to work training events everyday activity could lead to indefinite incarceration and forced removal. Data collection, indeterminate detention and arbitrary removal on mass deportation flights mean that to be ‘other’ is to be at risk and violent borders are everywhere.
Nowhere was this clearer than with May’s other dystopian innovation, the now infamous, Operation Vaken. Deliberately sent to areas with high levels of immigration, the racist vans may have been widely mocked, were swiftly withdrawn and failed in their direct ‘aim’ of encouraging people to leave voluntarily, but they set the scene for the increasingly toxic public debate on immigration that was to follow. Their greatest impact not measurable in ‘policy effectiveness’, but the hate crimes their rhetoric catalysed (and legitimised) and the stage they set for widespread the anti-immigration sentiment flamed by both sides of the Brexit referendum campaign. Trump threatened to build a wall, May drove it through the heart of our communities.
Make no mistake. This is state racism, emboldened by the politics of fear, flamed by the right-wing press, made possible by the erosion of community and the everyday uncertainty created by an economic system that has failed all but the richest. In this toxic landscape, it was very clear that the rhetoric meant that it wasn’t just the EU we were taking back control from. And, while responsibility for the cultivation of this noxious cultural terrain might lie primarily with May’s party, many in the left have been complicit by giving credence to, and therefore legitimising, a racist anti- immigrant agenda. As Gary Younge wrote in 2002 ‘Every step you make in the direction of a racist agenda does not “neutralise” racists but emboldens them’.
Mass deportations are a cornerstone of this increasingly hostile, xenophobic, environment. They take place under the cover of night, using private security services on privately contracted planes, primarily to Britain’s former colonies or sites of British military intervention, such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. People are rounded up based on their perceived nationality in the interests of filling the plane, sometimes without an opportunity to lodge or resolve a legal claim and often in fear of their lives. The practice of ‘taking reserves’ – people who do not find out until the last minute whether or not they will be on the flight, but are rounded up and taken to the airport – continues, despite criticism from the Home Affairs Select Committee who called the practice ‘inhumane’, and a demanded an end to the practice in 2013.
Mass deportations are not about ‘controlling immigration’ they are about fear and division. They are also homophobic. Many of the LGBT+ people deported, face criminalisation or death when removed because of their sexuality, and are subject intrusive home office investigations and offensive allegations of fabricated relationships. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in 40 Commonwealth nations, the legacy of British penal codes. Rather than removing people to places where their sexuality means that they face persecution or death, the legacy of UK homophobic colonialism should demand that the UK government work for an end to criminalisation of sexuality worldwide, and explore a means to address the historical debts of colonialism.
Mass deportations are also deeply entwined in a racist climate crisis. The elite, particularly in the Global North, whose current and historical emissions are disproportionately responsible for climate change, take high-carbon flights often for single meetings, while we eject people in planes that are used for corporate entertainment when they’re not hired by the UK government for mass deportations. It is also, of course, communities in the Global South that bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, whether physical – floods, desertification, increased water scarcity and tornadoes – or political: conflict and racist borders. In 2016, over 5,000 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean alone, trying to reach safety on the shores of Europe.
When End Deportations, Plane Stupid and LGSMigrants stopped a mass deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana on the night of 28th March 2017 we knew that one of the women on board had been told by her husband that he would kill her when she arrived in Nigeria, and had reported her sexuality to the police meaning that if he didn’t kill her she may well have been killed by the state. Another man had lived here for 18 years, and threatened to kill himself if returned to Ghana. One man, from the Ivory Coast, where he was tortured, was told by the Home Office he could get a bus there from Ghana. This is where we draw the line. This must stop.
We can and we must open these practices to public scrutiny. And doing this must also mean countering divisive partisanship that is the logic of the capitalist system This is where we refuse our consent. This is where we come together to say, this is not us. We demand an immediate end to these brutal flights, and a full independent public inquiry into the ‘hostile environment’. For none of us are free until we are all free.
Jo Ram is one of the Stansted 15, and a former member of the Red Pepper editorial collective.
Take action: enddeportations.com / detainedvoices.com / @lgsmigrants Further reading: Corporate Watch: Deportation Charter Flights: Collective Expulsion in 2017 (2017) and Collective Expulsion: The Case Against Britain’s Mass Deportation Flights (2013)Jo Ram is one of the Stansted 15, and a former member of the Red Pepper editorial collective.
Further reading: Corporate Watch: Deportation Charter Flights: Collective Expulsion in 2017 (2017) and Collective Expulsion: The Case Against Britain’s Mass Deportation Flights (2013)
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