The first charter flight to Jamaica since the Windrush scandal erupted last April has prompted sustained outrage – and rightly so. Stories of the people due to be on the flight have emerged in recent days and they are nothing short of heartbreaking. Some had young British-born children, at least one had a baby on the way. Many have been flown back to a country they barely know.
Their stories received no shortage of media and political attention. Days after news of the flight broke it escalated to a parliamentary debate. A seething David Lammy catechised the home secretary for it, and 58 MPs rallied together to call for an immediate halt to the flight through an open letter. At least seven of those due to be deported were granted last-minute reprieve – which almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the public attention.
But charter flights to Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries are nothing new. More than 1,600 people were deported from the UK on 42 charter flights in 2017. One took off to Nigeria just a matter of weeks ago – yet none have garnered nearly the same level of public outrage as the one to Jamaica this week.
There is no doubt the flurry of rage over the flight was prompted by the association of the Caribbean to the Windrush scandal. Lammy attacked Sajid Javid in the Commons for deporting Jamaican nationals before the Windrush review was complete, questioning how the Home Office could be sure it wasn’t “making the same mistakes”.
He had a good point. But we are forgetting that the so-called “Windrush” issue spans far wider than the West Indies. In the months since the scandal broke, it has become increasingly clear that Nigerians, Indians and other Commonwealth nationals have also had their rights breached by the government’s hostile environment. Narrowing it to the Carribean is to hugely underplay the government’s error.
Besides, and perhaps more importantly, the charter flight isn’t really about Windrush. Most of the deportees were not Windrush citizens. Rather, their lives have been shattered by stringent and unapologetic Home Office rules which allow for families to be torn apart in the name of immigration targets. In the case of these deportees, it was the law that means anyone without a British passport who receives a jail sentence of more than 12 months is liable for deportation, regardless of circumstance.
Indeed, the Home Office tried to deter any sympathy for the deportees by dubbing them all “foreign national offenders” who have committed “very serious crimes such as rape and murder”. Yes, all the deportees had criminal convictions, but many were for far less serious crimes such as drug dealing and fraud, which were often committed many years ago. It is difficult for anyone to argue that this does not constitute a brutal double punishment.
And there are similar stories on the dozens of other charter flights that leave British soil each year. In fact, the majority of them are not only removing offenders, but people who do not for whatever reason fit into the often arbitrary immigration rules.
The deportation process itself is yet more punitive. Detainees have described hearing “screams” of people being taken from their cells in the early hours of the morning as guards escort them out to a coach to be driven to the airport. Recent inspection reports have noted the “inhumane” treatment of deportees while they are being removed, saying that they are “treated as commodities” and subjected to “excessive and ill-judged” use of restraint.
Of course, the government needs immigration controls. But the recent outcry over the Jamaica charter flight, as well as the Stanstead 15 trial in which activists narrowly avoided jail terms for protesting against mass removal, have shone a brighter light on the UK’s harsh deportation process – and generated public anger that was not there before.
The Windrush crisis may have been what drew our attention, but this cannot be viewed as a one-off or an exclusively Carribean issue. Charter flights take place routinely and in secret – and only sustained pressure on the Home Office will ensure more injustices do not arise in this way.
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