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Shut Them Down: why we must stop charter flights

10 Apr 2017

On the evening of the 28th March, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, paying little attention to what appeared on the page, a live video caught my attention. The video was a livestream from the runway of Stansted Airport. Over 14 brave activists from Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSMigrants), Plane Stupid and End Deportations had chained themselves to the wheel of a plane in an attempt to prevent the departure of a mass deportation charter flight to Ghana and Nigeria. An estimated 70 deportees were on board the plane; many feared for their lives and the fate that awaited them if the plane took off. Many had come to call the UK home and deportation would have meant being torn away from family and loved ones.  

The blockade was successful and the flight was cancelled, marking an unprecedented victory. It is the first direct action in the UK which has successfully stopped a Home Office charter flight from deporting people.

The significance of this action was not lost on me. Detention and deportation have never been abstract concepts for me- their threats and dangers lie all too close to home. In the same week as the #StopCharterFlights runway blockade, a dear friend of mine Kelechi, a queer, disabled Nigerian activist, was given notice she would be detained at her next sign-in and sent to the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC).

Yarl’s Wood IRC is most commonly known for the horrific abuses and assaults perpetrated by guards and staff against the largely asylum-seeking women detained within its walls. Kelechi is a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, whose health is increasingly declining. Deportation would be fatal for Kelechi; her family in Nigeria consider her disability “a curse”, and detention at Yarl’s Wood would most likely damage her health further due to the medical support she requires. The #SaveKelechi campaign has been launched in an attempt to amass the extortionate legal fees required to fight for her case to remain.

Since the election of US President Donald Trump, liberal commentators in the UK have been quick to decry and condemn reprehensible policies across the pond such as an entry ban on migrants from seven majority Muslim countries, and the executive order banning all refugees from entry to the USA. Yet, the very same mouths have remained tight-lipped on the daily brutalities being enacted up and down the country to tighten and police Britain’s own borders. Some looked to Theresa May to offer some form of political resistance and extend solidarity to migrants when Trump made his state visit early this year. We cannot forget that it is Theresa May who during her term as Home Secretary laid out the mission of fostering a “hostile environment” in Britain for migrant communities.

A raft of insidious new legislation that forces doctors and GPs, landlords, and schools into collusion with the Home Office by requiring them to act as border guards has bred an atmosphere of suspicion, scapegoating and mistrust of migrant communities. We must interrogate who these policies are designed to serve, who they actually protect, and who benefits from them. In the wake of Brexit, xenophobic attacks are on the rise in the UK, as anti-migrant sentiments have quickly boiled over into violent assaults on brown and black bodies. A Kurdish Iranian teenager is currently fighting for his life after being beaten unconscious by a group of over 20 men and women, who set upon him after discovering his asylum status. There is a grave human impact to fiercely anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies too.

Mass deportation charter flights are yet another manifestation of May’s attempts to render the migrant life one full of constant tension, fear and anxiety. Whilst still largely covert operations, mass deportation charter flights have been departing in the middle of the night from undisclosed locations since 2002. Deportees on these charter flights describe being treated like animals. Each person on the flight is shackled into their seat between two guards who employ restraints so violent that, in 2010, they caused the death of Jimmy Mubenga.  Deportees are often provided with little advance notice of removal, meaning many have only a few days to fight for their right to remain. Recent cuts to legal aid mean that deportees, the majority of whom have children and partners and possess a valid claim to remain are unable to afford to access legal assistance for their case.

As I write this, I am thinking about the undocumented members of my families and, of Kelechi anxiously awaiting her fate. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we must all speak out against mass deportation policies that are inherently inhumane and violent. It shouldn’t take people locking themselves to the wheel of a plane for us to decry Britain’s abusive immigration system. Whilst it can be almost instinctual to make the economic argument for granting migrants respite and refuge, it is important we resist such urges to do so and recognise the damage employing “good/bad” immigrant dichotomies can have in the dehumanisation of large groups of migrants who are too sick and, too traumatised to be “productive” citizens that “contribute”. There is too much at stake for any of us to be engaging in respectability politics; more than ever, we must show up for all migrants.

It was Kenyan-born poet Warsan Shire, whose own family came as refugees to Britain, who wrote in her evocative poem ‘Home’ of migrants: “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. We would do well to remember the trauma and tribulations that migrants have undergone to get here too. Not everybody can use their body to blockade a runway but there are many useful ways you can extend support and solidarity with migrants. We may be a long way off still from imagining and building a freer and just world, but we can begin by stopping charter flights.

This piece is part of gal-dem‘s #ShutThemDown series, exploring the UK’s immigration detention estate which indefinitely incarcerates over 30,000 people a year. A disproportionate percentage of the UK’s detention population are working class people of colour, and asylum seekers.