On the 7th of September, 2016, 38 men and four women were forcibly removed from the UK to Jamaica on a private, chartered flight. They were all Jamaican nationals, but for most, Britain is their home. Many moved to the UK as children. Most have British children of their own. Despite that, they were deported, en masse, in secret and at great expense to the British government.
I am living in Jamaica and have met and spoken with some of the people from the flight. They described to me the flight itself, the reasons they were deported and the kinds of problems they now face in Jamaica – a country they may have few memories of, and might not feel safe in.
Charter flights are notoriously violent . When the Home Office charters a private plane they are ruthless in filling the seats, and people have very little time to process what is happening to them. Charter flights are highly secretive, they happen by cover of darkness and no one knows where the plane will depart from.
September's charter flight to Jamaica was the first in two years. I know people who were deported on the last one, in November of 2014. They told me of violent escorts, of being restrained in body belts and of being treated like animals. It's possible that the Home Office is planning to re-establish regular charter flights to Jamaica, deporting people on mass flights every few months, as it does to Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan and Albania.
Me and some friends at the Unity Centre in Glasgow – an organisation that gives practical support to and stands in solidarity with migrants – were able to speak with people before the flight. We called them in immigration detention centres and listened, as one person after another told us how they were snatched while signing in at Home Office reporting centres and handed flight directions in detention or prison, just days before the flight. In marked British accents, they told us about their British children, their British partners, their British homes and their British lives. We heard different stories, but there was a chorus of fear, anxiety and confusion.
After speaking to people on the phone we tried to publicise the charter flight. A protest was organised outside the Jamaican High Commission in London and the press picked up on the story. It was good to see some noise being made around this issue, but the protest had no real chance of stopping the flight, and it departed from Stansted at around 6.30AM on Wednesday the 7th of September.
In Jamaica I managed to contact 16 of the 42 people who were on the flight. They shared their stories with me, and they want them to be read. Here's what they told me.
TREATED LIKE ANIMALS
The Home Office requires that those with uncertain or precarious immigration status sign on regularly at reporting centres. Most of those who ended up on the charter were detained while signing on:
"It was my stepdaughter's birthday, I brought her up all my life, met her when she were one, and it was her fifth birthday that day. I went that morning to sign on, early that morning, before she woke up, and I've never seen her again. I had bought loads of presents to give her." – David, 29
The fact that people were detained while signing on, in different parts of the country, suggests the operation was well planned in advance. It seems that the Home Office conducted a wide sweep of Jamaican nationals who were liable to removal. People who had been signing for months, complying with Home Office regulations, found themselves detained in the weeks running up to the flight. With charter flights, the Home Office wants to fill as many seats as possible, and more Jamaicans were detained and served with flight directions than actually made it onto the plane.
Most spent late August and early September in immigration detention centres and were handed flight directions just a few days before the 7th of September, although many received their letters weeks after their letter was dated. Surely the Home Office wouldn't withhold correspondence to hamper legal interventions? Some had been told by their solicitors "not to worry"; the judicial review had been lodged in time. However, Home Office charter policy allows them to foreclose this option; judicial review was powerless.
People felt that they had been denied access to justice. As the date approached, some spoke to loved ones, just to hear their voices:
"I stayed up on the phone to her all night that night, and she was just crying, crying, saying, 'Please try and contact me as soon as you get there.'" – Andrew, 21
The night before the flight was due to depart people were rounded up in their cells. Up to eight security personnel came to retrieve them:
"They put a belt on us, tied round our waist, tying our hands together so you couldn't really move, and then they had hold of you and dragged you, pretty much carried you onto the coach. We were waiting in the coach for hours, then it set off. We couldn't get up, we weren't allowed to use the toilet, so there was no point drinking. We drove for half an hour, and then waited again from probably 12 midnight until 5AM before they took us onto the plane. We just sat there... that's when you start to realise you are getting on the plane, you aren't getting off." – David, 29
"They strapped us up, zipped us up, in a body belt so we could hardly move. They made sure they moved everyone under the cover of darkness. We were gone. We were in the air before anyone could make any noise. Even by the time my mum got hold of the solicitor, I was in Jamaica, man." – William, 38
I literally thought they were going to kill him.
Each deportee had two escorts for the duration of the flight, and I was told that only the lucky few were allowed to have their body belts removed. The Home Office deny this and insist that "waist restraint belts are used based on an individual assessment of the risk presented by each detainee".
"We were treated like animals, we were strapped up, thrown from one cage to another in the dark; we didn't have a say. The big guys there, just waiting for you to kick off, and then they could fuck you up. We were like animals." – William, 38
"You know what they looked like? You know bounty hunters, like some special forces." – Darel, 32
"There was one guy – he was distraught, because he was leaving his baby mum behind, and his child, and he was emotional. There were like seven or eight real big, wrestler-looking guys, like people you would see on WWF; they were massive. He was screaming, cursing, saying what they were doing was illegal or whatever, and the force they were using, I literally thought they were going to kill him. At one point they held him round his head, fingers in his temples, and they held him, held him so tight that after a while you heard nothing off him." – Michelle, 27
"I was one of the two people kicking off. I told them they were murderers. I was going on one, I was losing my mind. And then the plane started moving, and then we were in the air and I didn't have any energy left. I was wiped, so I stopped kicking off. I just thought, 'Hopefully when we land...' I still had faith that I might be able to come straight back. My wrists were bleeding from the handcuffs being on so tight." – Omari, 24
For most people, resistance seemed futile. Some managed to sleep. Some watched films. Others cried. When people went to the toilet they had do so with the door open so the escorts could keep an eye them.
The Home Office insists that force is used as a last resort, but overwhelmingly people spoke of the escorts as violent, racist and smug. It was only Michelle who spoke warmly of her escorts:
"So yeah, she managed to borrow a phone and let me phone my partner and kids and spoke to them before the flight lifted off. And when we landed she also gave me the phone to phone them, just to let them know that I landed safe. You can tell they've got kids themselves. So they sympathised with that. I spoke to my step-kids before we took off, and the escorts were a bit heartbroken because they heard when the baby started crying on the phone, and then I started crying, and she put her arms around me and was rubbing my back, and saying, 'I know it's hard, but you have to stay strong,' you know."
When asked to comment, a Home Office spokesperson said: "There have been no complaints about the treatment of detainees on this flight. We do not tolerate racism or mistreatment and will thoroughly investigate any allegations which are brought to our attention."
When the plane landed in Kingston the detainees were handed from the British authorities to the Jamaicans. They were moved in coaches to an army barracks to be "processed", which included an interview and finger-printing. People complained about the long wait and the heat:
"Basically, they were trying to push us in a corner, and we were dying. Everyone with their shirt off, we're sweating, so we're trying to go to the door. We can't go outside – they have officers by the door so we can't go outside, we're prisoners. It was punishment." – Glen, 35
For some, escaping the heat of the barracks was an ambivalent prospect, given they had no idea where they would be going:
"I was shitting myself. Listen, I've never been in a situation where I've been this scared. The most scared I've ever been in my life. It was madness. A completely alien place for me, innit. I don't know no one, I don't know nowt..." – David, 29
Most people were collected by family members, although not necessarily familiar faces. A few were offered accommodation in a homeless shelter in downtown Kingston.
DEPORTING BLACK BRITONS
Everyone I spoke to was deported despite having British children or stepchildren. Many spoke with British accents and barely remembered Jamaica. So why were they deported?
Most of the people I spoke to entered deportation proceedings through the criminal justice system. In other words, most had spent time in prison, or at least had a criminal record.
In 2006 there was a "foreign national prisoner crisis". It was discovered that some "foreign offenders" were being released from prison post-sentence, when they should've been considered for deportation by the immigration authorities. This scandal caused an uproar. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke lost his job and the Home Office began prioritising the identification, management and expulsion of foreign national offenders. The figure of the "foreign criminal", became a regular character in the media in a way that simply wasn't the case before the crisis.
In response, the British government has increased the resources allocated to the management of foreign offenders. Prisons have been re-organised around the problem of foreignness, with "foreign national only" prisons introduced (for example, HMP Huntercombe and HMP Maidstone). The Home Affairs Select Committee asks for regular updates on the number of deportations of ex-offenders, and sets targets. And there has been a flurry of legislative change, each Immigration Act more draconian than the next.
Any foreign national who receives a 12-month sentence or more is now liable to "automatic deportation". With changes in the law and in the immigration rules, it is increasingly difficult for foreign nationals to win cases on the basis of family life. Now, even minor crimes can see people deported from their families and communities. "Foreign criminals" are now centre stage in a set of debates about immigration, and the idea that the UK can't deport foreign criminals has been a common trope in the push to scrap the Human Rights Act and to leave the EU.
The problem is that we don't know much about the people themselves – the people who end up restrained in body belts on a transatlantic flight to forgotten places.
William moved to Manchester as a 14-year-old and received indefinite leave to remain soon after arrival. I recognised his accent straight away; he lived just a mile or so down the road from me in South Manchester. " I'm British, man. I've got my NI number, got my driving licence. I'm British, I'm nothing else," he told me. He is now 38 years old and has six British children. William admits that he has a long record: mainly minor driving offences and cannabis possession, but he does have two custodial sentences for dealing. Whatever you think of that, it's hardly exceptional. The question is whether deportation is a measured response to his crimes. His children will grow up without a father, their mother without support, and William will have to work out being British in Jamaica.
David – another Northerner with a broad Yorkshire accent – moved to the UK as a three-year-old. His grandparents brought him over after his father was murdered in Jamaica, and they brought him up as their own. David grew up in a black British family and always thought he was British, until he applied for a passport as a 16-year-old. That's when he discovered that he was not British, and that "mum" and "dad" were actually his grandparents. By the time he wanted to regularise his status it was too late. He had been imprisoned for a firearms offence at 18, after a friend hid a gun in his house. It would be near impossible for him to apply for citizenship after such a serious offence.
David received a second conviction years later for ABH, and this set in motion deportation proceedings. In both of his convictions, it sounded like David was incredibly unlucky, but that is perhaps beside the point: could it ever be fair to deport someone like David?
"I've lived in England since I was three," he says. "The furthest I've been is Skegness. Whatever happened to me, to my family and my father, back then, I didn't choose that. I didn't decide to come to the UK, I didn't make the choice. And now I'm paying for that, and they've sent me back to Jamaica. I'm a fish out of water."
There were others on the charter who moved to the UK as young children. Not all of them had custodial sentences.
Some did not apply for British citizenship simply because they did not know they had to. Naturalisation is not cheap, either, costing over £1,200. For many, the reason they were not able to naturalise was because they had a criminal record. Only persons of "good character" can naturalise, but some received criminal records as children.
A few people I spoke to grew up in the care system, and this is common among deportees – perhaps unsurprisingly given the disproportionate number of care-leavers in the criminal justice system.
"My older offences were anti-social breaches, from when I lived in a care home. We weren't allowed on the street that we lived on. The four boys from the care home were never allowed to walk together, so if the police saw you together you would be arrested for breach of ASBO. I normally got community service. I also got done for possession of weed. All of my convictions were from having a rough childhood. All of them are from growing up in care. They took me from my mum, which hurt me, because of certain abuses and stuff like that, but they took me, and I wouldn't have committed those offences if I was still with my mum." – Omari, 24
OPERATION NEXUS AND THE PROBLEM WITH GANGS
Nexus allows the police to share information with the Home Office, to develop a set of arguments for the deportation of an individual who may not have received a criminal conviction. The police hand over their intelligence information on arrests, suspected criminal activity, gang affiliation and charges that did not stick. People are then deported on the basis of these non-convictions, because the Home Office successfully argues that on the "balance of probabilities" the individual is of bad character, and their deportation would be conducive to the public good. In other words, people who were not convicted in criminal courts still end up getting deported because they are most likely bad people. With all that we know about racism in policing and in the courts, you have to wonder about the extent to which "bad" just means "black".
One particularly worrying aspect of this relates to the idea of the "gang".
"They said that I was in the Queen's Road gang. But it wasn't a gang – we all just grew up together on the same estate, you get me?" – Darel, 32
Darel was deported under Operation Nexus, despite having lived in the UK consistently for 24 years, since he was seven. The only convictions Darel received were for possession of marijuana. He was charged with one offence, but was able to prove his innocence and was NFA'd (no further action).
Darel has a partner and six children, four of whom he was the primary carer for – a stay at home dad. Operation Nexus allows for police intelligence and hearsay to be admissible in the tribunal, and Darel's accused gang affiliation was probably the reason he was exiled from his family and his home.
But how do the police come to define someone as gang-affiliated? In 2014, 78 percent of people on the Metropolitan Police's gang matrix were black. In Manchester, the figures are similar, and many of those on the list have not been convicted of any offences. A gang is supposed to be a group of people who are affiliated and commit violent crime in some kind of organised way. The idea that less than 20 percent of people who fit this description are white is deeply suspect, and contradicts all available offending data.
All of this suggests it's easier to end up defined as a member of a gang if you're black, and Darel's deportation is likely best explained in this context.
When asked to comment, a Home Office spokesperson said: "We are clear we will enforce the departure of anyone with no legal basis to remain in the UK who refuses to leave voluntarily. The overwhelming majority of these individuals were criminals, convicted of a range of offences including rape and GBH."
Given what I had heard, I couldn't help but think that the Home Office was using a small number of very serious offences to legitimise the deportation of people who had done more trivial things. The vast majority of people who get deported from the UK are not the killers, rapists and paedophiles of Daily Mail readers' imaginations.
BACK IN JAMAICA
The first pressing issue for people when they land in Jamaica is finding shelter. Finding a place to stay usually means connecting with family members and friends, but this rarely goes smoothly.
"Yeah, I just stay in the house, like. I think that's the fourth time I've walked up the lane to meet you... yeah, it's worse than prison. At least in prison I'd be eating and stuff like that. It's been like, what, two days now since I've ate anything. I've lost so much weight." – Andrew, 21
"My family is in England and America. These people here, most of them I've never seen in my life [laughs]. I hear them, I hear them all the time – they say, 'Why doesn't he just go back?' I hear them, but I just laugh. You're not my family." – Glen, 35
I can't cry. I ain't got nothing left to cry.
Once people have found shelter, however uncomfortable, they tend to spend as much time as possible talking to loved ones in the UK:
"Every night I talk to my kids, they're crying every minute. My missus is stressed, and I'm stressed. The other day I was so depressed I couldn't get up; I had aches and pains all over. Sometimes I just feel like I wanna kill myself right now. Being away from my family, everything. I'm sleeping on the floor, when I had my nice house and my kids and my routine." – Darel, 32
We speak like 100 times a day. We spend most of our time speaking to each other, on Whatsapp, trying to find money for solicitors. – Omari, 24
It is not only deportees who bear the violence of deportation. Children and partners face intense emotional strain and practical difficulties in the wake of deportation:
"My wife, at the moment now, she's not coping. She's not herself at this moment. And my son is not himself, either. I'm just telling it you as it is. It's ruining his lessons in school. He is wetting his bed. Having nightmares, crying in the night and waking up." – Everton, 48
"I ain't really got credit all the time. And when I do speak to my partner, all she does is cry... I can't cry. I ain't got nothing to cry. I can't cry. But I can understand she's crying for me. She understands my frustration; obviously she's frustrated as well. She's struggling. She's been struggling since I went jail." – Andrew, 21
It's not always easy to communicate with people back home in the UK. Internet signal varies greatly on the island, and credit can be expensive. The Home Office regularly say in their decision letters that deportees can keep in touch with loved ones using "modern forms of communication" , but as one deportee told me, "You can't be a Skype dad."
I was surprised by how many of the people I spoke to had claimed asylum, or left Jamaica because a family member was murdered or attacked. Many of the people quoted in this article returned to Jamaica scared, concerned for their safety after having fled the country years ago. Denzel left Jamaica in the late-90s after he became the subject of political revenge and had his hand nearly chopped off with a machete. He feared for his life then, and he still does: "If mi come a Jamaica, mi is a dead man, dat mi a tell ya... Mi nuh feel safe here, because my past is not pretty in Jamaica."
APPEALING FROM JAMAICA
Many of the people I spoke with are trying to be proactive and find a way to return to the UK. Most were deported with an out of country right of appeal. Since the royal assent of the Immigration Act 2014, those defined as "foreign criminals" can be deported before they have exhausted their appeal rights, and they are supposed to appeal from their country of origin. The vast majority do not bother. Legal aid is unavailable, given its decimation in the last few years. It is incredibly difficult to communicate with solicitors from abroad, and to get documents together. Very few lawyers I have spoke with have clients appealing from outside of the UK.
Despite these obstacles, at this stage some people remain hopeful and are working on their appeals. Some have lawyers, others are working with Roots to Return, a nascent organisation set up to help people with this process. No one knows exactly how their appeals will play out, or if they have any chance of success. But it is at least hopeful that people are trying to appeal. We will see if this policy is workable – which perhaps it was never intended to be.
A CONTINUING TRAUMA
For everyone I spoke with, this has been the most unimaginably traumatic few weeks. People are not far from crisis and homelessness, struggling to communicate with partners, children and lawyers in the UK.
Most people won't find a way to return to the UK; perhaps none of the recent 42 will. There is hope that they can find a way to start again in Jamaica, to slowly build a new home after being wrenched from the only one they had in the world. It takes time, and not everyone will manage it. As long as our dominant fears and fantasies around immigration go unchallenged, it's hard to see the pace of these deportations slowing – although two weeks of action against deportations being planned for January could be a start..
Omari was the first person I met from the charter, and he was incredibly distressed. He was unable to stand still and spoke of the many injustices that led him here to Jamaica. He rounded off every few minutes by saying frantically, "I just need to get back to my son, believe me, I just need to get back to my son and my girl." I hope he finds a way.
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