The violence of the Jamaica charter flight
‘Forced removal’, ‘deportation’, ‘chartered flight’. Somehow none of these terms fully encapsulates the violence – psychological, physical, economic – of the flight that sent more than 50 people back to Jamaica in early September. Part of the government’s drive to be tough on immigration, it has ripped families and lives apart. But it had little intention of bringing down immigration numbers: 50 people won’t even make a dent.
The chartered flight used to send people back to Jamaica was described as ‘secret’ by the press and by campaigners. To an extent this is true: the Home Office didn’t publicise it. But having attention drawn to it served the government’s purpose. 50 people. Not enough to reduce immigration numbers but enough to make a loud political statement. A statement that says ‘we are strong on immigration, we do not allow people to enter the country without permission or to overstay their welcome’.
Yet strong immigration policy has minimal effect on the numbers of people entering a country, whether by legal or underground channels. The state of the economy is the primary pull factor. The difficulty of arriving or staying is secondary, once migrants have decided that the situation at home is no longer tenable. And the evidence suggests that the stricter a country’s forcible removal policies, the fewer people leave voluntarily. Looking strong on immigration will not reduce the numbers of people entering the UK.
The individuals on this chartered flight to Jamaica were not people who were likely to disappear or slip off the radar. On the contrary, the very fact that they even could be deported was because they were in contact with the government. It is far easier to find and deport someone who signs on every week than it is to remove someone you didn’t even know had entered the country. Passengers on this flight attended their regular signing on sessions at the Home Office. For some, it was at one of these sessions that they were detained and subsequently deported.
The signing on requirement, and the deportations, form part of the strong arm policing of black and brown communities. Immigrant communities are forced into regular interactions with law enforcement and government during which they are treated with suspicion. More than this, the deportation of a group of Jamaicans, mostly men, feeds the narrative of absent and criminal black fathers. Those being deported are depicted as criminals who have overstayed in the UK. But it is not a criminal offence to have an irregular immigration status. And most of those people being deported have been here since they were children. One has been here since he was 4. Another has grandchildren who were born here.
The government has little interest in reducing net immigration, partly because it knows it has little chance of succeeding. But it needs to look as though it is trying, in order to fulfill an election promise, and to keep ahead of the wave of populism it unleashed in chasing UKIP rightwards to retain the Conservative voter base. Immigrant communities and people of colour are the inevitable sacrificial victims. Their personal and family lives are disregarded. And they can be further scapegoated: deportations become proof of criminality, of illegality.