On 28 March 2017, a Boeing 767 was due to take up to 60 people back to the countries they no longer called home. 11 of those are still in the UK today. At least one of which has since been recognised as a victim of human trafficking, and at least one has been granted permission to remain in the UK. This was the result of brave direct action from a handful of activists who laid on the tarmac at Stansted airport in the early hours of the morning – a last ditch attempt to buy time for the people loaded on the charter flight, some of whom had ongoing legal appeals. In standing up for migrants, the Stansted 15 did what the government has repeatedly failed or refused to do: defending the basic human rights of people in this country.
More people are now displaced than any other time since WW2. Most of those uprooted relocate within their own countries. But others are forced to cross borders. They have to pick their poison: do they stay home and wait to be arrested, tortured or killed; or do they pay a criminal gang to try to smuggle them to safety via a journey on which they’ll probably die – but die trying?
Those desperate enough to choose the latter hope for a place of sanctuary where they can live freely and safely. Their hopes are quickly crushed when encountered by the Home Office. For what follows is the implementation of the government’s hostile environment policy.
Those seeking safety often face lengthy interviews conducted by people guided by a deeply embedded culture of disbelief, with apparently little or no knowledge of the socio-political situations of the countries being fled. Traumatised and exhausted interviewees often undergo hours of burdensome questions with any discrepancies, however minor or explainable, being used to damage their credibility.
The Home Office and tribunal judges ask for documentary evidence of arrest, torture or other forms of persecution. Even though the persecuted person had to flee secretly and lightly; leaving behind their personal possessions to avoid their being suspected of fleeing and, in practical terms, because migrant boats do not have much storage space like legitimate, fit for purpose, and approved carriers do.
Also concerning is the lack of any meaningful consideration being given to the fact that many of the countries being fled do not operate as ‘paper trail’ societies. Documentation, accurate notes and records are sworn by in the West – but no so much in other countries where bombs, gun shots and depleting resources are the more immediate concerns. And even if they did – why would the persecutor provide the persecuted with documentary proof of their being persecuted?
Asylum seekers and migrants are often locked up for indefinite periods under immigration powers in removal centres or prisons pending their removals from the UK. Hidden away and silenced, their basic rights to healthcare and justice are mere luxuries. And we should be no less concerned about the treatment of those migrants who may not be fleeing immediate harm, but who are simply seeking a better life, or who were brought here as children – many legally. Those who have grown up in the UK, those who call it home, those who have built lives and families here – and face the prospect of being torn away from everything they know.
I say this with first-hand experience of the system: as a former volunteer caseworker at Bail for Immigration Detainees, I regularly attended truly disturbing removal centres around the country to visit detainees and prepared written representations for their release. Detainees often wait long periods for doctor’s appointments, medical reports and treatments – which are often inadequate in any event. It is no coincidence that the UK’s removal centres are notorious for their instances of self-harm and suicide.
At least they have the right to challenge this treatment. So you would think. Detainees’ practical access to justice is limited in most ways. There is a high threshold for obtaining public funding for legal representation – meaning that many detainees, who may lack English skills and may be mentally incapacitated, are left to fend for themselves against the full weight of the state. The lack of internet and telephone facilities in detention means detainees’ opportunities to even seek legal advice are tightened. In bail proceedings, most applicants appear for their hearings by video-link. This means that the tribunal cannot assess them in person, and that their barrister will often not get more than 15 minutes for a private conference with them before the hearing.
On the removal day, physical force will follow any act of resistance. Staff employed by the Home Office or its business partners have been reported to have assaulted and applied restraint techniques or equipment on detainees: remember Jimmy Mubenga. He was killed in October 2010 when G4S escorts used unreasonable force against him during a forced removal.
The 15 stood against this. But their collective challenge to the removals was met by the full force of the government’s hostile environment policy. Whereas before, the racialised policy was aimed at non-British people – its target now appears to include British human rights defenders.
The 15 were charged with aggravated trespass. The charging decisions were consistent with those in previous major airport protest cases, for example the Heathrow 13 in 2015 and the 49 Plane Stupid in 2008. Four months later, the CPS changed its mind. The charge was amended to a crime under Section 1 (2)(b) of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. The 15 went from facing a maximum of three months in prison to a possible life sentence.
Under Section 1 (7) of the Act, the 15 must not have been prosecuted under Section 1 without the Attorney General’s consent. We do not know why the AG consented, because no reasons were provided. This lack of transparency logically violates the basic right to scrutinise and effectively challenge governmental decisions on an equality of arms basis.
Representations were made for the charges to be dropped, but to no avail. The prosecution argued the 15 created, along with other risks, “secondary endangerment”: by attracting police attention, they diverted it from “another major incident”. This concept sets a dangerous precedent for future protests: potential liability for the incidence of crimes committed while the police monitor direct action.
The public outcry about their prosecution – particularly under terrorism powers – threw a light on the underhand and aggressive tactics the Home Office has long been using to enforce ‘hostile environment’ policies. It was a transparent attempt to crack down on direct action effective in challenging the government’s egregious and cruel migration policies. Thankfully, the outcry may also have helped the activists avoid jail. None of the 15 received immediate custodial sentences; on February 6th, 12 of the group received community orders and three received suspended prison sentences.
But the fight still rages on for the many more who are unjustly detained in immigration detention centres, and for those who are still forced onto charter planes and away from their friends and loved ones. Whilst the 15’s sentencing was unfolding, a charter flight left for Jamaica, the first since the Windrush scandal. Aboard were people who had lived in the UK for many decades, some of whom had British children. Many of them the children of the Windrush Generation. It’s a relief that the Stansted 15 won’t be going to jail for exercising their democratic right to peaceful protest. But we cannot claim victory until these scandalous tactics have ended.
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