For the past two birthdays, Rodney has been telling his 11-year-old daughter he’ll be out of prison soon; she had been anxiously awaiting his release date, this August. But instead of being released in the summer, Rodney was met by immigration officers at his cell door. They gave him a letter, informing him he would be deported to Jamaica on 2 December. Rodney – who has been in the UK since he was 12 – had a panic attack.
Initially, the 41-year-old told the officers he wouldn’t go: “I don’t know Jamaica, this is where I live, this is my place, I’ve been here for 30 years and everything I own and know is here.” The officers left and returned a few hours later – in a group of six. “They come in my cell, bend me up, twist me up, put handcuffs on my hands, and lift me up and take me to the bus,” he told Novara Media. “And that’s how I reached here,” he said, referring to the immigration removal centre in Manchester where he was held until late last week, along with five other men due to be deported on the same charter flight.
Since Spring, charter flights have had a 20-person capacity to reduce the risk of people onboard spreading and catching Covid-19, but according to campaigners, the Home Office planned to deport up to 50 people on the 2 December flight (although several have now had their deportations cancelled following action by activists and lawyers). The Home Office has reportedly said that people with coronavirus symptoms – including a cough or a high temperature – will still be put on the plane, just in a separate section.
Most of those due to be deported came to the UK as children or young men, and between them, they are fathers to at least 54 children. Over the weekend, a secret deal was agreed between the Home Office and Jamaica not to deport people who came to the UK as children – which is being defined as ‘under 12’ – but the details of this are vague and have not been made public.
Because of the backdoor nature of the deal, activists were until Monday unsure what had happened to Rodney, who was moved to another facility and stopped using the phone number Novara Media had been contacting him on, but it is now believed he has been removed from the flight following a separate, last-minute legal appeal.
The scheduled deportation flies in the face of last week’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, which found that the government’s hostile environment policy broke equality law, and contributed to the injustices faced by the Windrush generation. This report compounded the findings of the Windrush lessons learned review, published in March, which concluded the Home Office demonstrates “ignorance and thoughtlessness” over race and proposed 30 as yet unimplemented recommendations, including a training programme for Home Office staff on the history of colonialism.
Despite this, “the vast majority of the people that are being targeted for deportation have a link with the Windrush generation – some are of the Windrush generation and the others are the descendants,” said Zita Holbourne, co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) UK.
Although a Novara Media investigation earlier this month found there has been an enormous increase in deportation charter flights in 2020 – with the government accused of trying to rush asylum seekers out of the country under an EU agreement before Brexit – this is only the second flight to Jamaica this year and the first since the release of either report.
Rather than demonstrating accountability in relation to these two reports, campaigners say the government is quietly doubling down on its hostile environment policies. By pushing ahead with the mass deportation irrespective of the reports’ findings, and at the height of a pandemic, Karen Doyle from Movement for Justice believes the government is desperately “trying to draw a line under the Windrush scandal”.
“If they can restart these flights and get them going without incident and… without people linking it to the Windrush scandal,” she said, “they can continue with the real purpose of the charter flights and the hostile environment – which is to sow fear and division”.
In a statement, the Home Office said: “We make no apology for seeking to remove dangerous foreign criminals to keep the public safe,” and highlighted that those detained “include convicted murderers and rapists”. But campaigners and detainees say this statement is a misrepresentation grounded in systemic racism. Doyle is in touch with many of those due for removal and says most of their convictions are for drug offences. “A number of them were committed when people weren’t allowed to work,” because of their immigration status, she added. Some were victims of county lines networks, convicted under the now-defunct joint enterprise law, or targeted under Operation Nexus, which aims to deport Black people who have been racially profiled by the police but never charged.
In 2019/2020 Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in England and Wales. “The sentencing for Black men for drug offences is recognised to be one of the most disproportionate areas of the criminal justice system,” said Doyle.
When the pandemic began last spring, Rodney stopped being able to receive visitors in prison. From March to August, he was locked up for 23.5 hours-a-day. When he was moved to the detention centre, which is near Manchester airport rather than in the city centre, his family couldn’t afford to visit him.
“They just ship you further and further away from your family so you can’t get no visit and then now you’re trying to put me on a plane and deport me to a country that I don’t even know,” he said.
Activist Holbourne described the treatment of those targeted for this deportation flight as “a triple punishment” and “deeply racist”.
“If you were born in the UK, you wouldn’t have a double or triple punishment of detention or deportation,” she said. “You would serve your time… be ‘rehabilitated’, to go back into society, have a second chance and live your life.”
When he spoke to Novara Media last week, Rodney hadn’t yet told his kids he was facing deportation, “because it’s going to break their hearts”.
Forced separation from parents can have “deep and long-lasting psychological impacts on children,” said Holbourne. According to family members, she said, several children of the men facing removal “have started wetting the bed for the first time, aren’t doing well at school, are having behavioural problems, are experiencing nightmares, trauma and depression”.
In order to convince the courts that the impact on your children means you should not be deported, explained Doyle, “you have to prove that the impact on your children is what’s called ‘unduly harsh’”. In practice, given that many detainees struggle to access legal advice and legal aid is limited, producing this evidence – which has to include medical records and reports from experts – is almost impossible.
The immigration system makes it feel like “whatever way you turn, there’s a brick wall,” Rodney said. Upon reaching the detention centre, he said the immigration officers who interviewed him “didn’t even take notes”.
Rodney can’t “get [his] head around” why the government would separate people from their loved ones. “I’ve heard there’s 50 people on this plane… that’s 50 sets of kids without dads, that’s the next generation,” he said. “It’s terrible, what they’re doing to people.”
Before he was incarcerated for being caught with around £60 worth of drugs, Rodney prized spending time with his seven children above all else. “My kids are my world,” he said, “every weekend, me and [my daughter] used to go to the hairdressers and get our hair done, she’d get her kid’s nails… Whenever the sun was out, we were at the park”.
With just days to go before the charter flight is due to depart, activists are still working tirelessly to stop it. “It’s very much a fight against the clock,” said Jamil Keating from No Borders Manchester, who has been organising a social media campaign along with lobbying “to make sure that every MP who has a constituent who has been detained is actioning the case and fighting the case on behalf of their constituent”.
Doyle, meanwhile, has been working on a legal strategy; to make sure all detainees have a lawyer, and, if they have children, a clinical psychologist to assess how the removal might impact them. Other actions include finding out which airline is operating the flight and pressuring it to cancel the charter, and contacting the Jamaican high commission to pressure the country to refuse to accept the flight on human rights grounds and because of the pandemic.
Anti-deportation campaigners want the public to see that these flights are a symptom of systemic white supremacy. “Racism at the border is inseparable from racism in Britain,” said Keating. “The reason that grime music and dancehall are overly policed and often not granted licenses is the same reason they’re turning around and saying that these Jamaican men are a threat to this country.” Noting that many Tory MPs “themselves have criminal convictions,” he said it is “one rule for the powers that be,” and another if you are a Black man.
He added that he hoped more people would get involved in stopping the flight. “If you’ve ever made a BLM statement, then we want to see you making genuine attempts to raise the noise about this campaign.”
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.
This article was amended on Tuesday 1 December after TUI airways – which was originally identified as the airline operating the flight – responded to activists and journalists to say it was not involved. Several other airlines have also denied involvement.