Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Luke de Noronha | Mass deportation flight from the UK presents grave COVID risk

Published:Thursday | November 26, 2020 | 12:11 AMLuke de Noronha/Guest Columnist
Persons deported from the United Kingdom in 2016  leave the Mobile Reserve after being processed.
Persons deported from the United Kingdom in 2016 leave the Mobile Reserve after being processed.

Another mass deportation flight is planned from the UK to Jamaica, but the risk of COVID transmission have not been properly considered.

The UK government is chartering a mass deportation flight to forcibly return scores of Jamaican nationals on December 2, campaigners in the UK have learnt. The UK’s Home Office has not issued a press release yet, but there are reports that Jamaican nationals are being detained and transferred to Immigration Removal Centres, and several have received removal directions for December 2.

This planned mass deportation follows charter flights in February 2020 and February 2019, which went ahead despite the fact that the ‘Lessons Learned Review’ into the Windrush scandal had not been published. The Home Office has not been held accountable for the previous wrongful deportations of Windrush migrants, and lawyers and campaigners have repeatedly shown that the UK’s deportation system is inhumane and legally questionable. Despite these concerns, the Home Office will no doubt justify this mass deportation flight by asserting that everyone on it is a ‘serious criminal’. This argument usually works – people with criminal records do not garner much public sympathy. However, the urgent question with this flight concerns the very real risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 among deported persons first and then in Jamaica more widely.

THE FIGURE OF THE ‘FOREIGN CRIMINAL’

When the Home Office officially announces the deportation flight, we can be sure that their press release will emphasise the criminality of those on the flight. According to the Home Office line, people subject to deportation have nothing to do with ‘Windrush migrants’ (even if they are their grandchildren), and their crimes justify the punishment. However, whenever campaigners and family members look into the cases more closely, it emerges that most individual deportees are guilty of only minor offences, including immigration crimes and low-level drug offences. Moreover, many of those facing deportation would have been in the UK since they were infants, and might have no memories of Jamaica and no remaining family on the island (the UK recently tried to deport identical twins, who were born in the UK and have never left, to two different Caribbean islands, Dominica and Grenada).

The UK’s ultimate bogeymen, the ‘foreign criminals’, turn out to be neither particularly foreign nor particularly criminal. However, by summoning the serious criminal who must be deported, the UK government is able to play on popular fears and racial resentments, which then licenses the separation of families and the wrenching of individuals from their homes and communities. All this obscures the fact that the British criminal justice system is institutionally racist, especially against African-Caribbeans, who are more likely to be stopped by the police, arrested, charged, and incarcerated. Racism in the criminal justice system has come under renewed scrutiny in light of Black Lives Matter mobilisations in Britain – the biggest anti-racist street demonstrations in British history – but this charter flight clearly demonstrates the government’s broad disregard for those concerns.

PRITI PATEL AND THE BRITISH PENCHANT FOR IMMIGRANT BASHING

Successive British governments have made a habit out of immigrant bashing, accumulating political capital by demonising ‘unwanted foreigners’. This has weighed heavily on the Jamaican community in Britain. Priti Patel, the current home secretary who comes from the far-right of the Tory party, is especially enthusiastic about proving her credentials this way. Perhaps she hopes that by purifying the nation, she will be able to distract the British people from the government’s woeful mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain (the UK has recorded the highest number of deaths in Europe).

Patel is currently facing several allegations of bullying from within the Home Office, and she was forced to resign from her role as development secretary in 2017 after holding several off-the-record meetings with Israeli officials. During her current post in cabinet, Patel has focused her attention on the relatively small number of migrants arriving by boat across the channel from France, recruiting a ‘clandestine channel threat commander’, and calling for the navy to defend the UK’s borders against this foreign invasion (in fact, the arrival of a few hundred migrants seeking asylum and hoping to reunite with friends and family).

Patel has recommended that the UK should erect floating barriers and nets in the channel; send asylum seekers to a British territory in the South Atlantic to make their claims from there; and suggested that migrants could be processed in old ferries off the coast. In short, the upcoming charter flight to Jamaica fits into a wider pattern, in which demonising and expelling immigrants work as a kind of racist sop for disgruntled British citizens.

This is nothing new. What has not been properly considered, however, is the huge risk of COVID-19 transmission on this flight.

THE CHARTER FLIGHT OPERATION AND COVID RISK

There are currently around 150,000 new cases of COVID-19 each week in the UK. At the time of writing (November 24), there are 16,390 people in hospital with COVID-19. The number of people who died in the week to November 6 was 2,225 (the most recent verified weekly statistic). Over 63,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the UK since March, the worst figures in Europe, and black and minority ethnic people are much more likely to have the virus and to die from it (as a result of poverty, overcrowded housing, and work in healthcare, education, transport and hospitality – not as an effect of genetic difference).

In England, it was estimated by the Office of National Statistics that one in 80 people had coronavirus in the week November 8-14. If one in 80 people has the virus, and black people in Britain are more likely to have it, then let us pause to consider the charter flight as an operation, and the risk of coronavirus spreading on it.

First, charter flights are expensive and the UK will try to deport as many people as possible. There will likely be a reserve list so that the flight can still take a significant number, despite any last-minute legal challenges. In February, the Home Office deported 17 people, the year before 35; so let us assume the Home Office successfully removes 20 people this time round. Each deportee would have been in proximity to several family members in recent days and weeks. They would then have been detained, transferred between detention facilities, kept in prison-like conditions with numerous other detainees and guards. On December 1, they will then be transported to coaches, and then the plane, where each deportee will be escorted by two-three guards for the duration of the flight, and flight crew will also be present. Upon landing, the deported persons will be disembarked at the Norman Manley International Airport, and then taken to the Mobile Reserve for processing, interacting with many more people along the way.

We can assume that there will be at least 60 people on the flight, from 60 different households, each person having interacted with a few people, on average, in previous days. There is also the detention staff, who will necessarily be in close proximity with the deportees before the flight. Again, if one in 80 people has the virus, it seems more likely than not that someone on the flight is infected or will have recently become infected, with or without symptoms. Planes are hardly the most well ventilated of places, and spending over 12 hours in coaches and on the plane, with poor ventilation, when the virus spreads primarily via aerosol particles that are emitted when we breathe, speak and shout, does not seem like a particularly sensible idea.

Currently, the UK is in a lockdown. People are being told to work from home. Restaurants and pubs are closed. People cannot mix with people from different households – indeed, doing so is illegal – and the hospital wards are full of COVID patients.

The Government of Jamaica has done well to contain the spread of the virus thus far (initially by banning travel from the UK, no less), and while the tourism sector has taken a huge hit, damaging many livelihoods, these decisions have been made to protect the health of Jamaican people. Why, then, is this flight being allowed to go ahead? How can it be conscionable to go ahead with it, when it could easily end up being a kind of ‘super-spreader’ event?

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

By emphasising the risk of coronavirus transmission on the flight, I do not want to further stigmatise deported persons as harbingers of disease. As should be clear, the escorts are more likely to be the source of any spread (there are more of them after all). Instead, the point is that this charter flight, in operational terms, cannot be made COVID-safe, and it should be stopped on these grounds. If it goes ahead, there is a very real risk that it will lead to a spread of infection on the island … and also that Priti Patel can appear tough on immigration.

The whole operation reeks of contempt for the people of Jamaica. It reminds me of the 2015 prison deal, when the UK again forced its hand to push through an unpopular project in pursuit of its anti-immigrant programme. Jamaicans deserve better, and while this flight should be stopped on public health grounds, if and when further flights resume, they should be contested on grounds of social, racial and historical justice, forming part of a wider conversation on UK-Jamaica relations, and the unjust immigration policies that have proved so central to that diplomatic relationship.

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