A private Titan Airways jet left Birmingham on Wednesday morning carrying about 35 people, forcibly expelling them from the UK on a flight bound for Jamaica. It is the first such flight since the revelations surrounding the Windrush scandal, and it left hours before the activists known as the Stansted 15 were sentenced for peacefully grounding a charter flight in March 2017. For many in the Caribbean community and migrant rights campaigners, this charter flight is a “slap in the face”, a reminder that lessons from the Windrush scandal have not been learned and that the government’s hostile environment immigration policy endures.
However, the charter flight is being seemingly justified on the grounds that the people on the flight have criminal records. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Tuesday: “Every single person that will be on that flight that is being deported is a foreign national offender, they are all convicted of serious crimes, very serious crimes.” It’s not clear what the home secretary defines as “very serious” here, as it seems that some people on the flight have been convicted of minor offences. Take Akeem, 23, who is registered blind and suffers from epilepsy following a brain tumour as a child, and who served a four-month sentence for an assault conviction. (Javid used the same term when explaining that he would not assist wrongly deported “Windrush migrants” with criminal records). But whether they committed crimes, serious or not, Javid reminds us that those fighting for migrant rights need to develop arguments that can include those with criminal records.
Firstly, it is clear that deportation represents a form of double punishment. Deporting an individual after they have served their sentences abandons all notions of rehabilitative justice. But then perhaps this is precisely the point. After all, the idea of rehabilitation has been under attack for decades and being “tough” on crime often seems to include double and triple punishments, for example the gang members who should expect their families to be evicted if they live in council homes.
It is also clear that many of the Jamaican nationals booked on the flight had lived in the UK since they were children, some arriving as long ago as 1977. Many of these men (and it will be mostly men on the flight) have British children themselves.
But even those who arrived as adults might have compelling reasons to stay – would they be fighting their cases, against the odds, while locked up in detention centres, if not? Belonging and human connection are not reducible to weeks, months and years. Some people booked on the flight have ongoing asylum claims and many simply do not know where they will go when they land in Kingston.
As compelling as these arguments are, they often end up being drowned out by the clamouring consensus on the need to “get rid of all foreign offenders”. David Lammy’s important review into racism in the criminal justice system, published in 2017, found that black men were represented disproportionately at every stage – at arrest, in courts, in prisons. There is a wealth of research that has long supported these findings, and yet connections are not being made between racist criminal justice and deportation.
Most accounts of the Windrush scandal focused on the contribution and deservingness of long-settled Caribbean migrants. However, there is a connection between one kind of hostile environment and another: between stop-and-search and aggressive immigration policies; between prisons and detention centres; between mass deportation flights and the banning of drill music. Racism at the border is inseparable from racism within Britain; they license and feed off one another. For black and brown British citizens, that familiar refrain, “Go back to your country”, captures this most clearly.
Moreover, for as long as the defence of immigrants relies on proving their contribution, people who deserve support will be excluded. Instead, we need to challenge the broader system of austerity and racist criminal justice that restricts the possibilities for “contribution” in the first place. After all, “contribution” doesn’t work for marginalised British citizens either – for welfare claimants, for those unable to work because of disability and ill health, and for those performing essential and yet unpaid social reproductive and caring roles (mostly women, of course).
Moral panics about migration, crime and security work to obscure widening inequalities and deepening insecurities. As ever, it appears that by nurturing nationalist resentments about racialised outsiders – the “criminal”, the “migrant”, the “terrorist” – the government is able to redirect public anger, and secure consent for the very policies that make life more difficult and uncertain for the vast majority.
As the UK recommences these brutal and secretive mass deportation flights, we need to expand our critique of the hostile environment. We need to be brave enough to also condemn reducing human beings to criminals, and to depart from the logic of judging people based on their contribution.
The criminal justice system is racist; racism at the border articulates racism within; and in the context of relentless austerity, “contribution” is a dead end. We need to make these arguments if we really want to see an end to the hostile environment. Otherwise we’re just shifting the goalposts, and one kind of hostile environment will be replaced with another.
• Luke de Noronha is a writer and academic researching immigration control, racism and deportation.