Speaking with The Independent, Zita Holbourne, the national co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts UK and the organiser of a long-running petition calling on the Home Office to end “mass deportations” to Jamaica, said it was a dangerous step to deport people during a pandemic.
She said she was disturbed to learn the government had planned the deportation flight for 2 December, the day England’s nationwide lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 lifts.
“There hadn’t been any [deportations to Jamaica] through the first lockdown … and, in fact, a lot of people were released from detention because of the coronavirus pandemic,” Ms Holbourne said.
“To be doing this during the pandemic … it’s a breach of human rights,” she said. “And it’s not safe.”
It is still unclear how many people are expected to be on the 2 December deportation flight.
Speaking with The Independent on Tuesday from the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre in Harmondsworth, England, a Jamaican national who is among those who have been given a deportation order said he was surprised to receive the notice last week.
“I’m feeling low and down and just very depressed,” he said, asking that his real name not be published over fears speaking out could hurt his case, in a phone call.
Not only was he devastated at the thought being ripped away from his partner, whom he has built a life with in the UK, but he has also had to live with the fear of contracting coronavirus while in immigration detention.
The deportation flight itself could pose a further risk, Ms Holbourne warned, with detainees forced to travel at a time when people across the country are being urged to stay put.
The activist said the Home Office’s deportation flight should not be allowed to leave the ground, particularly in light of the fact black and other ethnic minorities have been found to be at greater risk of death from Covid-19 than other groups.
In a recent study commissioned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, researchers found that black people were at almost twice the risk of dying from Covid-19 than white people.
Analysing data from local and national sources, they found that black people were at least 1.9 times more at risk of dying after contracting the virus.
The deportation flight, Ms Holbourne said “should not be going ahead whatsoever. At this time, during the pandemic, it’s not safe."
“It was wrong anyway in our view,” she said. “But, now, at this time when Covid measures will make things even harder on every level, it is totally inappropriate.”
In a statement to The Independent, Labour MP Clive Lewis also condemned the planned flight, and said "the Home Office’s dehumanising attitude to people resident in, immigrating to, and seeking refuge in the UK is totally out of step with the inclusive Britain that so many of us want to see."
Mr Lewis also suggested that the deportation flights were part of a broader issue of institutionalised racism in Britain.
“Undoing institutionalised racism starts one step at a time and the Home Office can choose to take the first step by stopping the deportation of Osime Brown," he said, referring to the case of a 22-year-old autistic man whose family is currently fighting to stop his own deportation to Jamaica.
And, Mr Lewis said, the Home Office should also be "halting the deportation of black British residents to Jamaica planned for 2 December.”
Over 150,000 people have signed an ongoing petition launched by Ms Holbourne.
“Are these people for real, they won’t let us travel [but] they can deport a plane full of people,” one signatory, identified as Monica Tucker wrote, appearing to reference the Johnson government’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
“This is very wrong what they are doing to human beings,” another signatory, identified as Janet Reid, wrote. “Judgement will be on them when time come for them.”
The Home Office faced scrutiny over its deportation flights to Jamaica earlier this year after it allowed one such flight to take off despite a legal challenge alleging that some detainees had not had adequate access to legal support.
In the midst of the pandemic, Ms Holbourne said, immigration advocates fear that coronavirus measures put in place at detention centres are again making it difficult for detainees to access the legal advice they need.
With some coronavirus measures seeing restrictions put in place on access to facilities like computer rooms, she said, detainees could be struggling to receive sufficient access to support.
Until the coronavirus measures are lifted, Ms Holbourne said, no deportation flights should be leaving the ground.
In a statement sent to The Independent, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We make no apology for seeking to remove dangerous foreign criminals to keep the public safe.”
“That is why we will regularly operate charter flights to different countries to remove dangerous criminals who have no right to be here," the spokesperson said, adding: “The people being detained for this flight include convicted murderers and rapists.”
The Home Office also noted that none of the individuals due to be on the flight are eligible for the Windrush Scheme.
Ms Holbourne said that “the government will say that they’re all hardened criminals and that they’re all rapists and murderers, but our experience has been that the people who are targeted for deportation like this, the majority of them are people who have done a one-off crime. It might be drugs-related … it might be a traffic offense or another thing like that."
“The issue is that the government will try to demonise them as criminals, that they’re foreign nationals who have committed a crime in the UK, so they must be deported,” she said. “But if they had been born in Britain they would be able to serve their time, be punished for their crime, be rehabilitated, and turn their lives around.”
“This is punishment by virtue of the fact that they weren’t born in the UK, even though they’ve grown up in the UK, gotten schooling in the UK and this is the only home they know,” she said.
She further noted that many detainees will also not get the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones due to restrictions on visitations aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19.
“This is happening just before Christmas at a time when families can’t even visit detention centres and say goodbye,” Ms Holbourne said.
In a statement published on social media, Bella Sankey, the director of advocacy group Detention Action, warned that “tens of children stand to lose a parent” due to the deportation flight.
The advocate said Detention Action is seeking to conduct a report on the potential impact of the deportation flight ahead of its departure.