Cruel and unusual punishment

Boris Johnson is continuing the anti-migrant ‘hostile environment’ policy of his predecessors, writes Eddie Ford.

This week we had a sickening reminder of how the government, armed with its commanding parliamentary majority, is determined to press ahead with its authoritarian and anti-migrant agenda - even if Boris Johnson does like to present himself as a ‘one-nation’, socially liberal Tory, who wants to heal the nation following the rancour of Brexit. In reality, we should expect the normalisation of the Windrush scandal.

In the teeth of opposition from various campaign groups and a substantial number of MPs, early on February 11 a flight to Jamaica took off with 17 deportees going to an unknown fate. There was meant to be more on board, but a last-minute legal challenge by the human rights groups, Detention Action, forced the government to remove 25 people from the flight, as they had not had access to proper legal advice. The court of appeal granted a judicial review on the basis that the detainees should not be booted out unless the home office was satisfied, or could prove, that they “had access to a functioning, non-O2 SIM card on or before February 3” - there had been a problem with mobile phone outages on the O2 phone network at the Heathrow detention centres since last month, meaning many had been unable to exercise their legal right to contact their lawyers or families.

Of course, for those banged up in inhuman immigration removal centres close to the airport, their phones are their lifelines, almost literally - as repeatedly pointed out by the Detention Action. With their phones useless, the detainees are effectively left incommunicado and highly vulnerable to arbitrary government action - which surely qualifies as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Just as in the original Windrush scandal, for which the last prime minister was apparently “genuinely sorry”, dozens of these individuals have lived in the UK since they were children - but that seemingly counts for nothing. Removal flights to Ghana, Nigeria and France have already gone ahead during the period in which detainees had limited or no access to the outside world.

Many of those who were deported to Jamaica this week had been interviewed by The Guardian, saying that between them they will leave behind dozens of young children, along with their immediate and extended families - what is going to happen to them? As for those already deported, it is said that their lives are now at risk because of gang violence on the island. After a highly controversial deportation to Jamaica last February, at least five men were subsequently murdered. One of those was the cousin of Akeem Finlay, who was meant to be on the February 11 flight following a conviction for ‘grievous bodily harm’ - he came to the UK at the age of 10 and has a partner who is pregnant with his fourth child. Another of Finlay’s cousins has also been murdered. He said: “The men involved in the murders of my cousins have warned our family not to return to Jamaica or we will be murdered too.”

While all those deported, or still due to be deported, have criminal convictions of one sort or another, many have committed just one offence - in many cases drug supply, GBH or ‘joint-enterprise’ crimes, one of those being a 24-year-old who moved to Britain when he was just four. He told the Guardian he was groomed into a ‘county lines’ gang and forced to sell drugs when he was chucked into the scandal-hit Medway secure training centre. He served three months there for a burglary he was convicted of committing during the 2011 riots, always protesting that he was innocent.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants condemned the way families have “just been forced apart by the government” - the children “who have lost their fathers” and the women “who’ve become single mothers overnight”. So much for family values. It is “deeply unjust”, the JCWI went on, that people who grew up in Britain “can be exiled to a country which is totally foreign to them”, as “they are British in every meaningful way” - the injustice is compounded by the fact that some of the passengers could be “potential victims of trafficking” or “county lines exploitation”. Similarly, the Movement for Justice campaign group said “the human cost of this charter flight will be immense”. Detention Action issued a statement saying that what happened on February 11 “defies belief”, arguing that the removal of the detainees could mean the home office was breaking the law, as these individuals were “clearly covered by the court of appeal order prohibiting their deportation” - the government is behaving in a capricious manner.

More than 170 cross-party MPs in a joint letter had urged Boris Johnson to halt the Jamaican deportations, because there was “an unacceptable risk of removing anyone with a potential Windrush claim” - plus a “failure by the government to remedy the causes of the Windrush scandal”. It is therefore crucial that “all further deportations are cancelled” until the long-awaited review into Windrush, ironically entitled Lessons learned, is published and its “recommendations implemented” - otherwise the government “risks repeating” the same mistakes. The review was commissioned in July 2018 by Sajid Javid, who replaced Amber Rudd as home secretary following her resignation over the Windrush debacle. A leaked draft of the review in June last year, written by Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, said the government should “consider” ending the deportation of foreign-born offenders who came to the UK as children - say, before the age of 13.

David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, described the departure of the flight as an “outrage” - the government is deporting people who arrived in the country as young as two, often for one-time-only drug offences. For him, “the lessons from Windrush have not been learned” - with lives “being ruined because we don’t remember our history”. Whilst Lammy might be a rightwing anti-Corbynite, I have no hesitation in saying he is obviously right on this particular question.

The home office, however, stated that it was duty-bound to deport the ex-offenders under the UK Borders Act 2007, which requires anyone receiving a prison sentence of more than one year to be automatically liable for deportation, with little possibility of appeal.

This is appalling. Not only is the prison system almost completely divorced from any notion of rehabilitation, even within the system of capital. It is also used as part of the discrimination against anyone who is not British - they are meted out two punishments, the second being completely obscene.


Naturally, however, the government is totally unrepentant about its action. Indeed, judging by the response of various ministers and advisors. You can only assume that they will happily do it again - going on the offensive, if anything, rather than retreating.

Javid, who is now chancellor, robustly defended the decision to go ahead with the flight: those on board were not members of the Windrush generation - absolutely not - but criminals who posed a risk to the public. Hence he told BBC’s Radio 5 Live that the passengers were “all foreign-national offenders” who have received custodial sentences of 12 months or more - “they are responsible for crimes like manslaughter, rape, dealing in class-A drugs …” Later he was asked by Kay Burley of Sky News if he was sorry about one of the cases being a 23-year-old who had come to the UK aged five and spent 15 months in jail after being convicted age 17 for drug offences. Javid’s reply: “We’re not even saying sorry”. Forget it.

The prime minister’s press secretary, Peter Hill, stepped up the attack even more. He declared that reaction to the case showed that “certain parts of Westminster still haven’t learned the lessons of the 2019 election” - doubtlessly he would say the same to anyone who expressed unease at the slaughter of the first-born, torture or public executions. Furthermore, Hill said the hoo-ha about the flight from the “Westminster bubble” only highlighted the government’s intention to press ahead with an inquiry into the use of judicial review to challenge ministerial decision-making - the Conservative manifesto stating that it should not be “abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”.

These sentiments were echoed - and amplified - by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s infamous chief special advisor and scourge of Guardian-reading liberals everywhere. He described the court of appeal’s ruling as “a perfect symbol of the British state’s dysfunction” - saying that the support for the judgment among MPs and hacks “shows they still haven’t understood what the last few years has been about - the country outside London is horrified, but rich London is cheering the lawyers”. In the eyes of Cummings, the Tories’ decisive election victory and Brexit represented the launch of Trump-style culture wars against the London or Metropolitan elite - anti-free movement, anti-migrant, anti-cosmopolitanism, etc. He is eager for battle.

As the deportations reveal, Boris Johnson is continuing the ‘hostile environment’ policy of his predecessors, David Cameron and his then loyal home secretary, Theresa May - something they boasted about at the time. There is no question that it was the ‘reforms’ introduced by May in her flagship 2014 Immigration Act which meant that the Windrush generation and others suddenly had to provide documentation they did not have in order to continue working, access key services like the NHS or even remain in the country they have lived in since they were children. As the future prime minister put it, the government has to prevent people from thinking “they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need” - which would be dreadful.

At the same time, of course, Cameron made his universally ridiculed pledge to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” - a fantasy target that still has not been officially renounced by the present government. Nor will we ever forget the government sending out vans in London for a whole month telling migrants to “go home or face arrest” and advertising a ‘helpline’ for those who now wanted to leave. Or Amber Rudd setting out her “ambitious” plan to increase removals of 10% more people than May ever managed and “focus” officials on “arresting, detaining and forcibly removing illegal migrants” - hoping to kick out at least an extra 4,000 every year.

As the Weekly Worker pointed out when the Windrush scandal first erupted, it should have made us think about the situation facing the present generation of migrants - often living a precarious life and possibly finding themselves not allowed back into the country after attending a wedding or funeral abroad. Communists programmatically fight for the assimilation of migrants into British society, which by definition is a two-way process of change. Communists also want to see free movement and the abolition of all anti-migrant laws: anybody who has been resident in the country for six months ought to have the right to take up citizenship - without having to undergo the absurd language and British-knowledge tests.