Last week, more than thirty British residents who had been scheduled to be forcibly removed to Jamaica in the dead of night were rescued from their deportation flight, thanks to the efforts of lawyers, activists and civil rights groups. Thirteen people were left on the plane and exiled. According to the Home Office, they were all ‘dangerous foreign criminals’ whose deportation was required by the 2007 UK Borders Act. Their lawyers argued that there were grounds for exception. Campaigners emphasised that the continuation of mass deportation flights would lead to the same injustices as the ‘Windrush scandal’ in 2018.
The government, professing outrage at the reprieves, used the same comparison to make the opposite point. ‘The Windrush scandal is a stain on our country’s history,’ Priti Patel told the Daily Mail:
that generation made an enormous contribution to our country and were wronged by successive governments. To see ill-informed Labour politicians and do-gooding celebrities attempting to conflate the victims of Windrush with these vile criminals set for deportation is not only misjudged and upsetting but deeply offensive.
Boris Johnson had taken a similar line in February, when he claimed that Jeremy Corbyn ‘besmirches the reputation of the Windrush generation’ and ‘has no right to conflate them with these foreign national criminals’, after Corbyn had suggested it wasn’t right for Black people in Britain to be punished twice, through both incarceration and exile, when white citizens who commit the same crimes face either prison only or no punishment at all.
For anti-deportation activists, the mass support for Windrush victims makes the scandal a convenient and strategic tool for articulating broader arguments against deportation. For their opponents, the scandal is not the inevitable and intended consequence of a raft of anti-migrant legislation – as if the hostile environment were not a deliberate policy goal – but merely a regrettable side effect of the state’s usual mode of operations which, we are told, are reserved for ‘vile criminals’, not for the dignified heroes who came to keep our NHS, public transport and schools running.
The persistent appeal to ‘Windrush’ (by grim irony, no longer shorthand for the arrival of people from the Caribbean after the Second World War, but for their deportation seventy years later) has helped entrench the idea of a special class of migrants who are more welcome in the United Kingdom than others. And it makes it harder to say ‘no, I do not believe a murderer should be deported, no matter the severity of his crime,’ without an appeal to such mitigating factors as his life-long residence in the UK, the desperate crayon-written letters of his children, the contribution made by his ancestors, or the likelihood of his being a victim of crime himself. Relying on this framing often means that we leave ourselves dependent on media scandals to generate sufficient public anger, or on the dry technical auspices of the ‘morally neutral’ judge and courtroom. This is not to disparage the tireless work of the lawyers and others who intercept deportations, but the law – which is already hardly on the side of Black Britons – can easily be changed to make deportations easier, especially with the current of crop of Tory MPs who denounce the courts for meddling in political matters and describe their judgments as ‘constitutional coups’.
I think we need to accept the charges laid by the home secretary and the prime minister, and acknowledge that we are conflating ‘foreign national criminals’ with the Windrush victims. Their cause should be argued from the same core principles. It is no insult to the Windrush generation to connect them rhetorically to ‘criminals and thugs’ because they have all suffered violence at the hands of the state. Migrants are turned against one another with the idea that ‘foreign national criminals’ contaminate the stock of ‘good’ migrants who ‘deserve’ their residency or naturalised citizenship.
Windrush victims and their families advocate against all deportation because they recognise that the logic of ‘criminality’ is constructed to isolate people from their communities, families and friends. Indeed, it isn’t an insult to imply that a retired Windrush victim may be connected to a ‘foreign criminal’, because the ‘criminal’ in question could be a recently arrived Egyptian national held at HMP Wandsworth for theft, or he could be her own grandson. The social conditions, structural injustices and economic depravities that produce ‘criminals’ also create hostile environments for all migrants.
‘All migrants’ must also truly mean ‘all migrants’ which means we should not temper our beliefs. I do not believe in deportation for drug dealers because I believe in drug decriminalisation. I oppose the idea that failing to deport (or to incarcerate) ‘criminals’ re-traumatises their victims, because trauma cannot be resolved by making someone disappear, and levelling the state apparatus against them to inflict its own violations dodges the work required for real justice, accountability and repair.
As long as the Windrush scandal is used to frame our anti-deportation rhetoric, it leaves people exposed to the violence of the Home Office and its border regime. What about those who did not come to the UK as children, who do not have families here who are dependent on and love them, who have no recourse to public funds or entitlement to public services? In September, the Mail reported that Priti Patel had ‘kicked out Albanian drug dealers and thug who pulled a knife on police’. If we accept that any class of people is a legitimate target for deportation (or state violence more generally), we introduce the possibility for the category to expand indefinitely.