Campaign group Against Borders for Children (ABC) claimed a sudden and startling victory this month, with the government reportedly backtracking on its demand that schools collect data on pupils’ nationality and country of birth.
Since September 2016, the Department for Education had been gathering the information, which parents and teachers feared could be used for immigration enforcement purposes, through the school census. The policy was considered a particularly nasty part of Theresa May’s bid to turn the country into a “hostile environment” for migrants, showing the Prime Minister has no qualms even about targeting children.
Novara Media intended to report on this racist and cruel way of profiling migrant families as part of this week’s focus on migration, but in light of the nationality and country of birth questions being scrapped from the census, we have decided instead to end on a high, by highlighting other key wins in the fight for migrants’ rights — victories that have defied the trend, as on the whole the situation has got progressively worse for migrants in Britain under the past two Tory-led governments.
Here are our top five:
1. An end to the deportation and detention of homeless EEA nationals
A home office policy of detaining and deporting Europeans found rough sleeping was ruled unlawful by the High Court last year, in a landmark case brought by North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and the Public Interest Law Unit on behalf of three Eastern European men.
The home office had argued that being street homeless violated the terms of free movement within the European Economic Area (EEA), but a judge disagreed, saying the government was violating European Union law with the ‘discriminatory’ policy.
Shockingly, homelessness charities like St Mungo’s and Thames Reach had been working with the government to catch homeless EEA nationals, contributing to an enormous rise in the number of Eastern Europeans in detention centres. As a result of the ruling, the practice has now been stopped completely.
2. ‘Deport first, appeal later’ found illegal
The so-called “deport first, appeal later” policy meant people without British citizenship who committed a crime could be deported before they even had a chance to appeal. This resulted in the removal of people who were born in the UK, people who had arrived as children and people who had lived here for decades and were separated from their entire family as a result.
Despite the misleading name, only a tiny minority of people who were deported under the laws were actually able to find and pay for the legal support necessary to launch an appeal from abroad. According to an FOI request by Novara Media, of nearly 6,000 people deported between 2014 and 2016, only 106 launched out of country appeals and not a single person deported under the laws was allowed to return to the UK.
In Summer 2017, the Supreme Court ruled the policy unlawful, saying the home office would be violating the human rights of a Jamaican man and a Kenyan man who brought a legal action against the government, if it sought to deport them before they had appealed.
3. Countless deportations stopped by activists on social media, on the phone and at the airport, and a charter flight grounded by activists blocking the runway
During and after the most recent Yarl’s Wood hunger strike, the home office issued a flurry of deportation notices in an apparent attempt to pick off the ringleaders. As guards tried to force several protesters on to planes against their will, journalists and activists from groups like SOAS Detainee Support mobilised, contacted MPs and had several deportations stopped — including twice blocking the removal of Florence and Opelo Kgari, who had spoken extensively to the press.
Before this, activists had established a long history of calling and tweeting at airlines and MPs to get deportations stopped, of approaching other passengers at the airport and asking them to kick up a fuss on board the plane and of persuading pilots to refuse to fly.
In March 2017, 15 activists blocked a secretive charter flight by occupying the runway, preventing 57 people, including asylum-seekers, from being returned to Nigeria and Ghana. Although the group succeeded in stopping the plane from taking off, they are now standing trial charged with terrorism offences.
A halted deportation can make all the difference to a person’s case: In addition to removing people from immediate danger if they are asylum seekers scared for their lives in their country of origin, many people who are not deported later win their cases and are allowed to stay permanently.
4. A ban on ‘detaining’ children
In 2014, the coalition said they were bringing an end to the detention of children, after sustained, popular campaigns against the practice and repeated condemnation from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and from the United Nations. The move showed that demands for measures to lessen suffering and injustice within the detention system — like those made recently by the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers — can make a difference.
However, campaigners continue to question whether child detention has really ended. Although children are no longer ‘regularly detained’, unaccompanied minors can still be held for 24-hours and children are sometimes held for longer periods of time with their families prior to deportation.
Vulnerable refugee children as young as 14 have also been unlawfully detained in adult centres when the authorities have initially refused to believe their age.
5. No more detained fast track
Under detained fast track (DFT) thousands of people were whisked through an entire asylum appeals process in just seven days, while held in a detention centre. The accelerated process made it almost impossible to gather evidence and as a result the vast majority of people placed on DFT had their appeals rejected. According to a 2011 report by Detention Action:
“Most meet their solicitor for a few minutes just before their interview, often without advance notice. 99% are refused asylum. They have two days to submit an appeal, for which 60% are unrepresented. Finally, after an asylum process at breakneck speed, they spend an average of 58 days in detention awaiting removal.”
In 2015, the Court of Appeal ruled that DFT was unfair and ordered then home secretary Theresa May to suspend the fast-track system immediately, following a legal action from Detention Action. In 2017, an earlier version of the system was also found to be illegal meaning thousands of people who were deported could now in theory apply to return to the UK.
Corbyn has committed to placing a time limit on detention if he comes to power, but it is possible the Labour party could go further and end detention entirely. In the wake of powerful demonstrations outside Yarl’s Wood and hunger strikes inside, prominent members of the shadow cabinet have indicated they are supportive of the idea.
But beyond getting a more sympathetic government into power, these five victories show direct action, sustained campaigning and crowd-funded legal bids can make a difference. We must keep fighting.