Doubling Down on the Hostile Environment

This week's deportation flight makes clear that the government hasn't learned the lessons of the Windrush scandal – and intends to make the hostile environment a whole lot worse.

It was in April 2018, just over a year since I, along with fourteen others, gained access to a remote part of the airfield at Stansted airport and chained ourselves around a charter flight—due to deport around sixty people to Nigeria and Ghana.

Our simple action, one we’d expected to face aggravated trespass charges for, had been blown out of all proportion as the government decided to prosecute us under little-known terror legislation. Our first trial collapsed within the first two days, leaving us suspended in limbo, awaiting our second trial the following October.

When we took action at Stansted, we did so in the hope of preventing the flight deporting vulnerable people to places where they faced violence, persecution, or death. We also hoped to be able to highlight some of the injustices woven into the heart of Home Office policy. We did so knowing that the narrative in the press and, to some extent, the public were against us. Years and years of anti-immigration sentiment, had been allowed to fester like an open wound, and were now enshrined in policy. 

There had been murmurings of the Windrush scandal back in November 2017—horrific stories of black Britons being deported or refused healthcare began trickling out throughout the winter before erupting in Parliament in the spring. As the true extent of the scandal became clear, and outrage and anger rippled through the country, the conversation began to change. 

Suddenly, the hostile environment, and all the injustices so many activists and those at the sharpest edges of it had been trying to expose were cast out from the shadows, into the light. As government ministers were raked over the coals, inside and outside of Parliament there were moments when it was possible, if only for the briefest of seconds, to feel some hope. 

With Amber Rudd’s resignation, and the suspension of deportation charter flights to Jamaica, along with independent reviews into the scandal, ‘Windrush’ became a by-word for Tory malice and racism. Calls to end the hostile environment increased. Unrelenting pressure from MPs like David Lammy and Diane Abbott, as well as residual anger from the scandal seemed to provide enough cover for the Labour party to start shifting dramatically on immigration. Commitments to end indefinite detention and close detention centres like Yarl’s Wood, which just this week has been at the centre of another abuse scandal, became a central plank of the party’s immigration policy. 

It felt like a consensus was gradually being reached around the horrors of the hostile environment. A quiet and slow acceptance across the country that things had gone far too far. It was against this backdrop that the Government quietly restarted deportation charter flights to Jamaica on February 6th last year. In the weeks leading up to the deportations, the Jamaica Gleaner ran a headline referring to it as a ‘Convict Flight’, with the government promising it would only include Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) guilty of the most ‘serious offences’—the exact same framing used by the Home Office this week in the deportation of around seventeen people to Jamaica. The change of tack—previously deportation charter flights to the Carribean included those who were not FNOs—and framing is undoubtedly an attempt by the government to circumnavigate the Windrush scandal’s effect, and to steer the national conversation back to the outrage, fear, and hatred that it thrives on. 

The claims that all of those on the flights are the most serious offenders is patently untrue. The story of Chevron Brown, deported in 2019 to Jamaica having served a seven month sentence for dangerous driving in an uninsured car being just another example of the growing gap between the truth and the Tories, as more information about those on Tuesday’s flight comes through (a solicitor involved tells me that at least three of the seventeen were deported for non-violent drug offences). 

Following a last-minute legal challenge, which saw the removal of twenty-four people from the deportation flight, the Home Office seemed incredulous, stating ’we make no apology for trying to protect the public from serious, violent and persistent foreign national offenders. The court ruling [on the mobile phone outage in detention centres] does not apply to all of the foreign national offenders due to be deported and we have therefore proceeded with the flight.’

It is clear that it didn’t really matter to them how many people they managed to deport on Tuesday morning. This week, those of us involved in the fight against the hostile environment have spent our time being asked in increasingly histrionic terms why we’re defending rapists/murderers/terrorists. Instead of talking about the horrors of the hostile environment, we’ve been making (valid, true, and necessary) arguments about fairness before the law, and the systemic inadequacy of our criminal justice system. 

So let’s be clear: it is fundamentally wrong for any foreign national offender to be deported. It represents an additional level of punishment for a crime that would not be given to someone guilty of the exact same crime who happened to have a British passport. It is particularly wrong, cruel, and callous to treat those who have been in the UK since they were children as foreign national offenders. The Windrush review—leaked by David Lammy MP on Newsnight last week calls for an end to the deportation of such people except in ‘extreme circumstances’— a call the government seems determined to ignore. 

Specific legal controversies aside, it’s important to try and keep sight of the bigger picture: the question of when it is and isn’t appropriate to deport someone misses the wider point. Our immigration system is broken. It is built on a foundation of prejudice and lies, propagated by vested interests, a right-leaning press and the political establishment capitulating to them. Its contemporary structures, implemented by successive Labour and Tory governments, are machines of violence, targeting people of colour and migrants, rounding them up, ripping them from their communities, indefinitely detaining them in places rife with systemic abuse, and then deporting them on secretive night flights where they’re restrained for hours on end. 

It’s a system that directly results from the ugly seam of racism that runs through the history of Britain, its wealth built on the backs of colonised citizens of the Commonwealth nations. A system that kills, violates, abuses, and tortures those unlucky enough not to have the good grace to be born white and British. A system that lines the pockets of private companies with profits built from the blood of some of the vulnerable people in our society. 

When we talk about the hostile environment, immigration, deportation, detention, and raids; about asylum, Yarl’s Wood, and charter flights; about border guards, the channel crossing, and Calais; about FNOs, child refugees, and Windrush: we are talking about the same thing. 

This week, the movement came together to fight the so-called ‘Jamaica 50’ flight. Whether it’s migrants rights organisations and lawyers launching legal challengers, caseworkers working tirelessly to get information to those involved, campaigns, communities, and movements organising demonstrations and lobbying, or the MPs in Parliament who led the fight there—the energy to resist the hostile environment was huge and unrelenting. 

We cannot stop now. If this week has shown anything, it is how determined this government is to ensure the hostile environment remains in place. There are huge fights ahead,with more deportations planned, a no-deal Brexit threatening the immigration status of those who have made a home here, and a planned clampdown on judicial reviews which are often the only weapon in a lawyers arsenalwhen intervening to stop a deportation, the movement cannot stop. We have to keep growing: bigger, louder,more determined than ever before. 

In the face of a Conservative majority, and an emboldened far-right, our only option is to fight for justice, for fairness, and freedom for all, every moment, of every day until we win.

About the Author

Ben Smoke is an activist and contributing editor of Huck Magazine. He was one of 15 people convicted of terror-related offences for his part in the blockade of a deportation charter flight at Stansted airport in March 2017.