A black mark against Britain: Detained Jamaicans are the victims of a racist immigration policy, says Claude Moraes

Click to follow
THE EXTRAORDINARY events surrounding the detention of 28 Jamaicans who arrived at Gatwick on a Christmas charter flight a week ago have aroused much comment. Theories abound as to why the Home Office acted in such a draconian fashion. We may never know exactly what indignities were inflicted on those held at Gatwick and at the Campsfield Immigration Detention Centre, but there is mounting evidence to show that the Home Office is pursuing a concerted strategy.

This is not the first time that Jamaican visitors have been targeted in this way. In 1989 the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) warned that refusals of entry for Jamaican nationals had reached outrageous proportions. One in every 40 Jamaicans was being rejected: in other words every plane arriving from Kingston or Montego Bay was likely to contain three or four passengers who would face summary return on the next available flight.

In 1979 one in 729 people was refused. By 1986 the proportion had gone up to one in 233; in 1987 it was one in 117; and in 1989 one in 40. Can it really be that Jamaican nationals became a nation of fraudulent visitors in such a short space of time? Of course not. The dramatic rise was part of a strategic Immigration Service and Home Office plan.

Only when campaigning began to expose these arbitrary refusals did the rate at last begin to drop. At the time it was felt that the massive rise in refusals was the prelude to a visa regime being imposed on Jamaica. This belief was based on the treatment of visitors from other black Commonwealth countries, the Indian sub-continent and West Africa. In the mid-Eighties the Home Office had swooped on visitors from five of these countries, arguing that they were all places from which there was 'pressure to emigrate' to the UK. Refusal rates rocketed for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana.

In 1985 the Immigration Service had argued that these countries required the kind of 'firm control' that a visa regime would bring and asked the Home Office to withdraw the rights of MPs to prevent immediate removals. When this failed, the refusal rate for these 'suspect' countries rose further from 8 per cent to an astonishing 68 per cent within six months. In autumn 1986 visa requirements were imposed on all five countries.

Against this alarming background it was no surprise that black communities in the UK were deeply concerned that the Government was trying to play the same game with Jamaica in 1993. But such a policy would have much more serious implications today than in the mid-Eighties because the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, which came into force this summer, has abolished the right of appeal for refused visitors - the last remaining safeguard. And with the removal of this important layer of accountability of immigration officials, refusals will undoubtedly rise steeply.

The anger among Britain's black communities at the withdrawal of appeal rights is easy to understand: two- thirds of the average 10,000 annual appeals against refusal were upheld. Now refusal in effect means being barred from the UK for ever. When you consider that 1992 one in four Bangladeshis and Ghanaians arriving here were refused entry, but only one in 3,012 United States citizens, you can see why the nationals and UK relatives of people from black countries regard the new Act as a tool for undermining family unity, potentially barring thousands of black people from the UK.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that our Immigration Service is increasingly out of control. Officials have enormous powers to impose subjective tests on an individual's right to enter the UK. For instance, among the thousands of cases which JCWI has successfully appealed was that of a Bangladeshi man who was told by an immigration officer that his bank statement showing his income was not admissible as evidence because 'unlike in civilised countries, bank statements from Bangladesh are not an indicator of a person's income'.

Reform is badly needed if incidents like this are not to recur. The burden of proof has to shift away from the applicant and safeguards must be built into the system; there must be a restoration of an MP's right to challenge decisions; there must be a publication of secret instructions - of the type no doubt issued in the latest Jamaican incident; and there needs to be a code of practice for immigration officers operating entry control.

There is another deeply worrying angle to the recent detentions. These individuals were detained under very difficult conditions - as are more than 9,000 people every year - under the Immigration Act 1971. Most have never been charged with any crime; they are detained without charge, trial, conviction or sentence. The Home Office alone decides how long they will be there and whether they will be able to remain in the UK. Britain has the dubious distinction of the highest figures in the European Union for the detention of immigrants. There is a need for a permanent watchdog to place the immigration service on a statutory footing. This would ensure accountability.

The treatment of Jamaicans is symptomatic of a much wider need for reform of the UK's racially discriminatory immigration laws and policy. The rank injustice of the system lies in the perception of who is to be controlled and 'discouraged' and who is allowed free access. The inescapable fact is that black people are often treated with derision in the immigration system.

It is highly unlikely that the situation will improve because UK policy is being driven by an increasingly restrictive European immigration policy. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act of 1993 had the fingerprints of European intergovernmental decisions all over it. And it is now reported that the European Union is to draw up a common visa list in 1996. It would not surprise me if Jamaica featured on this list. The Government may feel it can still hide behind public apathy but, as we have seen clearly over the past few days, the well-established and increasingly confident black community in the UK will not quietly sit back while we see our relatives and friends - and ultimately ourselves - humiliated by unjust and racist immigration controls.

The writer is director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

(Photograph omitted)