‘Daddy won’t come back’
The man who spoke to me on the phone from Morton Hall detention centre in Lincolnshire asked me not to use his name. ‘It’s nowhere, in the middle of a field,’ he said. ‘I have to stand up by the window otherwise the phone will cut off.’ He had been scheduled to be deported to Jamaica last Tuesday, on a flight that the Home Office said was ‘specifically for deporting foreign national offenders’ who ‘include people convicted of manslaughter, rape, violent crime and dealing Class A drugs’. Of the fifty or so men who were to be deported, 25 were not, thanks to an emergency ruling by the Court of Appeal.
At 10.30, they put us on a bus and took us to a private airfield in Doncaster although they were fighting for our case outside. I see police. I see dogs. It was like hell. We were watching other detainees going inside the plane. We were shaking, thinking any moment it’s going to be us … Anything they say we can’t believe. They say things that try to play on someone’s mind. I’ve had flashbacks. I can’t sleep, going over it in my head. There was 150 security on the ground, then the armed police on the tarmac, sitting in their van. It was like you’re watching a movie. The security would make a line from the bus to the plane, on two sides, although you have two security escorting you to the plane. We were treated like we’re high-risk terrorists. I stayed on the bus from 10:30 to 12 o’clock the next day, until we came to a different detention centre.
Bella Sankey is the director of Detention Action, the organisation behind the legal challenge that won the reprieve. ‘We noticed massive issues with phones in the Heathrow detention centres,’ she told me. ‘We thought: hang on a minute, that breaches the Home Office policies that say detainees are to be given a phone for five working days before removal so they can get legal advice. We filed a week before the flight was due to go.’
The government had promised to pause deportations until the review they commissioned on the Windrush scandal was published. A leaked draft of the report includes a recommendation that people who came to the UK as children shouldn’t be deported. ‘The vast majority of these people are not hardened offenders,’ Sankey said, but ‘people who got mixed up in drugs when they were teenagers. They’ve been rehabilitated. There’s no rational reason they should be deported.’
Tayjay was set for deportation on 11 February and is still in detention. He came to the UK when he was five. He’s now 23. He has a conviction for one drug-related offence, for which he served seven months of a 15-month sentence in 2015, when he was 17. He has spent the past six years in and out of detention centres.
Zita Holbourne is the co-founder of Black Activists Rising against Cuts. ‘Often these men committed a crime many years ago,’ she told me. ‘They had indefinite leave to remain, which was taken away, and have been living in limbo for years. They have parents, partners, children, who are all British. They have permission to work. Some have never been back to Jamaica. To all intents and purposes they are British.’
I asked Tayjay whether he feels British. ‘I am British,’ he said.
It wasn’t always so easy to deport ‘foreign criminals’. According to Rudy Schulkind of Bail for Immigration Detainees, ‘we’ve sleepwalked into this situation.’ Automatic deportation for any foreign national given a 12-month custodial sentence was brought in under the UK Borders Act 2007. In 2012, non-asylum immigration cases were removed from the scope of legal aid. The Immigration Act 2014 handed yet more powers to the government. Before the charter flight to Kingston took off, 170 MPs wrote to the prime minister asking for it to be suspended. ‘It’s a very strange thing to see Parliament up in arms for such a thing,’ Schulkind told me, ‘when the problem is the law. The law needs to be changed.’
You can appeal against deportation on the grounds that it infringes your right to a family and private life, but the threshold is ‘incredibly high’, Schulkind said. In practice, to prove in court that separating you from your partner or children would be ‘excessively cruel’, you need to hire an independent social worker. This costs between £1000 and £2000, money that most detainees don’t have. They also need to pay a lawyer to represent them.
The man I spoke to at Morton Hall has had five children in the UK. The last time he was detained was while ‘signing on’ with the Home Office. (Anyone whose immigration status is considered uncertain can be required to report at a police station or other designated place once or twice a month, or even once a week.) He was supposed to pick up the two youngest, who are aged seven and three. This is his fourth time in detention. He says his seven-year-old son has changed since he saw him being detained by immigration officers at home on a Sunday morning. ‘Every time I’m going to sign on he starts crying, saying: “Daddy won’t come back.”’
At Morton Hall detention centre, there have been rumours of a second deportation flight, which would leave this week. ‘Suicide has come to my mind because I don’t see no way out,’ the man told me. ‘Nobody understands what we’re going through. I cannot win this case because they treat us like we are nobody. I don’t know what to say to the kids.’