Rejuvenation of the hostile environment

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Benjamin Coulson
Deputy Investigations Editor

Benjamin Coulson discusses the implications of the “Jamaica 50” for Britain’s approach to immigration.

On the morning of Tuesday 11 February, 17 individuals were deported to Jamaica, despite fierce outcry and opposition. The deportations took place after a court of appeal judge ordered the Home Office to suspend the deportation of 25 people after concerns that some detainees may not have had access to legal advice. Up to 50 Jamaican-born individuals were expected to be placed on a Home Office chartered flight as a result of the government’s plan to deport foreign nationals that were guilty of committing “serious offences”. In a statement, the Home Office has said that: “Those detained for removal include people convicted of manslaughter, rape, violent crime and dealing Class-A drugs.”

So why then, have these deportations been so controversial? The home secretary is, after all, adhering to the 2007 UK Borders Act, the product of a Labour government, that states that a person who is not a British citizen, and has been sentenced to a period of imprisonment of at least 12 months, may be subject to deportation.

The issue here stems from the fact that many of those who have been deported, and those who the government plans to deport, have spent more of their life in Britain than they have in any other country. Tottenham MP David Lammy has reinforced the importance of this notion, writing that some of the individuals who are scheduled to be deported are more British than they are Jamaican. The government’s plan to deport individuals who have been residents in the UK since they were children is an inherently cruel act, regardless of the crimes that they have committed here. Not only have the individuals served their sentences, the deportations have separated people from their families, friends and livelihoods. The Guardian has reported on interviews with some of the 17 individuals who have been deported and one man, who has remained anonymous, has said: “I’m stressed to the bone by all this. I don’t want anyone to know my location and I haven’t even been able to break the news to my kids yet that I’ve been deported.”

This move comes less than two years after the Windrush scandal. Windrush is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived on 22 June 1948, carrying individuals from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean islands, as a response to labour shortages in the UK after the second world war. The Windrush Generation has gone on to encapsulate all arrivals to the UK from the Caribbean, from the first ship in 1948, through until the 1971 Immigration Act. In 2017 the Home Office admitted to wrongly deporting or detaining over 160 British citizens, of which at least 11 of these people died on the streets of countries that were foreign to them. The government is, of course, rejecting claims that the Jamaica deportations echo the Windrush scandal. Former chancellor Sajid Javid has challenged opposition to the deportations, asserting: “They are not British nationals, they are not members of the Windrush generation, they are all foreign national offenders.”

The Home Office has not responded to a leaked draft copy of the Windrush Lessons Learned review, which has stated that the government “should consider ending all deportation of foreign national offenders where they arrived in the UK as children”. The attitude of indifference from the government towards the fate of those it is deporting sends worrying signals about who is allowed to be a British citizen. The government is showing that it is not sincere in its apology to the Windrush generation though ignoring the recommendations of the Lessons Learned review.

The air in which the deportations of individuals to Jamaica has taken place is one fuelled by systemic racism and a push-back against non-white immigrants coming to the UK. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has attacked Boris Johnson and his government for being all too willing to apply different rules to black and white people, asking whether there was “one rule for young black boys from the Caribbean and another for white boys from the US”. The language of the “illegal immigrant” versus the “highly skilled” immigrant has come to dominate the narrative of the government throughout the past decade. The UK has been governed by a party that has proudly called its package of policies directed at irregular migrants, the “hostile environment”.

Hostile Environment policies are broadly aimed at discouraging individuals from coming to the UK, to stop those who do come from overstaying, and to stop irregular migrants being able to access the essentials of ordinary life. This xenophobic attitude has been allowed to surface since 2010. No longer is it taboo or shameful to have an outright antagonistic outlook on immigration, it is now a valid political position and a government policy. In 2020, 44% of the British population have expressed that they wish to see immigration levels reduced. This has created an atmosphere in which individuals can be deported from the only country they have ever known without any significant political backlash.

Politicians and media outlets have polarised the argument on immigration in recent decades. We hear that immigration is pushing the NHS to breaking point, draining public services and driving down wages. Yet, at the same time, the government is pursuing a narrative that the country is in need of “high-skilled” migrants. The rhetoric of this government is one that has prioritised a fight to overturn a judicial decision that has protected the legal rights of 25 individuals and prevented their deportation, displaying that the government wishes to show that it is taking a tough stance against immigration. The deportation of individuals who have been here since they were children perpetuates a narrative that there is a wrong and a right kind of immigrant. Those deported to Jamaica are wrong, whilst the “highly skilled” migrant is right.