Yesterday, campaigners working to stop the deportation of 50 men to Jamaica released a letter from a 10-year-old boy. Addressing a judge, the child explained why his father should not be forcibly removed from Britain, ending: “Please let my dad stay with me.” The man, a Windrush descendent, was deported along with 12 others in the dead of night, while dozens more escaped the same fate thanks to frantic last minute appeals.
The boy’s heart-shredding letter is a damning testimony to the situation: a child’s appeal for humanity in the face of a gleefully heartless government. His wasn’t the first letter to be ignored. Protestations were lodged by 82 Black public figures, including the historian David Olusoga and model Naomi Campbell, alongside rights groups, lawyers and politicians.
This week’s forced removal of foreign offenders, like another Jamaica-bound deportation in February, was condemned as racist and unjust. Weeks ago, an inquiry by the UK’s equality body found the government’s hostile environment policy and Windrush scandal broke the law and discriminated against Black people. Several reviews have noted the policy had fostered racism and wrongly deported people. One urged the government to consider ending the deportation of foreign born offenders who came to the UK as children. Even while the government has admitted it wrongly detained or deported 164 black Britons, 11 of whom died in the countries they were sent to, those late night flights continue.
And as it continues to devastate lives and families – many including small children, alongside key workers – Priti Patel’s Home Office makes “no apology for seeking to remove dangerous public criminals”, while drowning out principles of natural justice.
These cases are clearly not being treated with due process at the right stage, since late and haphazard appeals are often leading to deportations being overturned. Appeals succeed because of the impact of deportation on families, or because those marked for removal are victims of grooming or modern day slavery – as was the case with this week’s planned removals. Many have lived in the UK since childhood – British in every sense except for the bit of paper declaring it. Many were convicted for drug offences and all have already served sentences. They are being punished twice. Once in prison time; the second in a lifetime banishment from Britain.
The Home Office claims such deportations are in the public interest. But as Satbir Singh, chief executive at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told me: “If you believe that the criminal justice system cannot take someone guilty of an offence and rehabilitate them and make sure they are no longer a danger to society, then you need to fix the criminal justice system – deporting people doesn’t solve anything.”
Underpinning deportation measures is the premise that some, by dint of birthplace, do not deserve rehabilitation, not even into a society where they have lived since childhood. People can do time for a crime, be reformed into a law-abiding life, start a family and get on, only for the state to come banging on the door one day and blow it all apart. With Brexit, this could soon extend to EU citizens, unless protected by law – and we have already seen that nothing short of British citizenship offers guarantees.
In this screeching populist right climate, few want to be miscast as champions of violent criminals. But this is so obviously a kind of racist and xenophobic double jeopardy, it beggars belief that the Labour opposition, fronted by an actual human rights lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions, cannot argue the case.
Indeed, the lack of full-throated protest from Labour’s shadow front bench is a striking component of this story. One problem is that New Labour implemented the 2007 law permitting deportation of foreign national offenders sentenced to 12 months or more in prison (although Conservatives made the appeals process tougher in 2014). And so we have a Labour frontbencher talking about the double punishment of criminals as a “grey area”.
In truth, successive Labour leaderships have shied away from tough discussions of racist government policies, in thrall to right-wing culture wars that pit the left on the wrong side of public sentiment. But such retreat only makes things worse: it gives the government a free pass to push appallingly discriminatory policy and then watch the opposition flail in its response. Skirting this issue does not make it go away; instead, the Conservatives get to define the narrative, drag it ever rightwards and dominate the conversation.
Unless the opposition actively dismantles a divisive, racially-charged narrative and replaces it with a progressive, collective vision of Britain, Conservatives will always weaponise these issues, leaving Labour behind – and leaving thousands of lives destroyed in the wake of its vindictive, agenda-driven policies.