When we contrast two ongoing deportation cases in the UK it reveals some uncomfortable realities about the racism of our border regime.
Myrtle Cothill is a frail 92 year old South African with health conditions. She’s also, not unimportantly, white. Luqman Onikosi is a 36 year old Nigerian with chronic liver disease caused by Hepatitis B. He is black.
On the surface, both cases appear very similar. Both applied for leave to remain in the UK on medical grounds but were refused by the Home Office. Both are people who risk dying if they are deported due to medical circumstances – although only Onikosi has actually seen his two brothers die of the exact same condition already. And yet the reaction to their cases have differed hugely.
Onikosi’s case has received, in general, quite a hostile response. A comment article by Alana Lentin in the Guardian and a report in the Independent have both provoked a mixture of vitriolic anti-migrant sentiments and hand wringing ‘rules are rules’/‘I’m just doing my job’ complicity in their respective comment sections.
But when we look at Cothill’s case, everything changes. She has gained sympathetic coverage from outlets like the Daily Mail, with commenters near universally arguing that her deportation would be an outrage. The Express has even been running a campaign to keep her in the country since October.
In her case, all the resigned, faux-mature head-shaking about rules existing for a reason vanishes. All those pragmatic, sensible objections are overruled. Supporters of the person to be deported are no longer labelled naive idealists or anti-British traitors, but rather valiant defenders of a vulnerable old lady.
By comparing the reactions to the two cases, we are left with the impression that deporting a frail white woman is an aberration against ‘common sense’, but deporting an ill black man is the embodiment of that very same ‘common sense’.
How is this contradiction possible? The answer is obvious: because the common sense of our border is racist. This is particularly striking when we ask who gets protected against deportation by the ‘common sense’ position.
It’s brilliant that the pressure applied over Cothill’s case has forced the Home Office to postpone her deportation. But the prioritisation of white lives has been an integral part of what has forced this reaction. She has escaped the violence of deportation as a result of her whiteness. Onikosi has not yet been so privileged.
Our challenge is now to prevent the violence of deportation universally – not just for nice old white ladies. This selective defence of people against deportation on the basis of race will kill Onikosi, unless we stop it.
Of course, I’m not arguing that the Home Office should deport with less racial bias – rather, that we should halt deportations all together. The nation state system is irrevocably bound up in racism, colonialism and structural injustice. As long as there are borders, people like Luqman Onikosi will always be told their lives matter less than people like Myrtle Cothill.
The ultimate challenge before us, then, is to globally redistribute wealth, and break down artificial barriers that separate us from each other. Only when we achieve that kind of structural change will the racism inherent in the common sense of our system be fundamentally challenged. To quote Yanis Varoufakis: “Borders are an absurdity, when looked at from space.”
Photo: Number 10/Flickr
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