The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK has again called for a just and person-centred approach to immigration in light of planned a charter flight occurring amid reduced scrutiny and despite the public health risks of international travel during the pandemic.
The flight, to Kingston, Jamaica, is due to take place on Wednesday 2nd December, the day that England exits its second full lockdown, but amid ongoing tight Coronavirus restrictions. This occurs as restrictions arising from the pandemic have often made it more than usually difficult for those in detention to get legal advice. JRS UK, which runs an outreach service to Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), is seeing people facing forced removal to a number of countries without having had access to legal advice and often without understanding what is happening.
Black public figures, including prominent Windrush campaigners, have called in an open letter for airlines to refuse to operate the flight, raising concerns about the UK’s broken asylum system and noting that “the UK’s system for identifying victims of trafficking is in disarray.” They note that four people who narrowly escaped deportation to Jamaica in February 2020 following legal intervention were subsequently found to be potential victims of trafficking.
Sarah Teather, JRS UK’s Director, said: “Pressing ahead with deportations in a global pandemic, when most of the country is still effectively in lockdown is madness. It is risky for public health and grossly unjust to the individuals involved. There are real questions at the moment about the fairness of decision making when access to legal advice is tricky and face-to-face meetings are off. This rush to deport looks like the worst kind of headline chasing, done without care for individuals or the wider public.”
The letter also raises concerns that Windrush citizens, or their descendants, may be on the flight. Typically, many of those who face deportation and are classed as ‘foreign national offenders’ have spent their who lives in Britain. It has been reported that the Home Office has since privately agreed not to deport people who arrived in Britain before the age of 12 on this particular charter flight following overtures from the Jamaican High Commission. The concession comes amid intense pressure from people campaigning for reform in light of the ‘Windrush’ scandal which saw many British citizens born in commonwealth countries wrongly detained and removed from the UK.
Sophie Cartwright, JRS UK’s Senior Policy Officer, said: “We welcome reports that people who have lived in the UK since early childhood won’t be removed on this particular flight. This must be followed by commitment to ending a system of automatic deportation that destroys families and communities. The government must stop deporting people who know no other home than Britain.”
This charter flight is the first of several scheduled to take place in December. The others are to remove people seeking asylum to other European countries through which they ostensibly passed en route to Britain, under EU legislation that will cease to operate in the UK at the end of the year. Many of those so far scheduled to be removed on these flights have not even been fully interviewed by the Home Office and have had little or no access to legal advice. JRS UK’s detention outreach team has concerns that several may be potential victims of trafficking. Naomi Blackwell, JRS UK’s detention outreach manager, said “What we are seeing on the ground is that people are being removed without sufficient oversight, communication, or due process. People subject to removal often haven’t had the chance to speak to a solicitor and have been kept in the dark about what’s going on. There is a real risk that we are removing people to ultimately end up back in danger.”