Home Office plans to charter a deportation flight to Jamaica before Christmas will put lives at risk as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, campaigners have warned.
Earlier this month, HuffPost UK revealed that the government would continue its deportation flights during England’s second lockdown, despite a ban on international travel.
Now, it is understood a flight to Jamaica has been scheduled for December 2 – the day lockdown ends.
The Home Office would not say how many people are set to be deported on the flight but a spokesperson insisted they were all “foreign national offenders”.
Under UK law, non-British citizens who are convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to 12 months or more in prison in the UK can be eligible for deportation.
The Home Office makes “no apology for seeking to remove dangerous foreign criminals to keep the public safe”, the spokesperson said.
They added that people being detained for the flight include convicted murderers and rapists. They also listed other serious offences committed by those set to be on the flight, but declined to provide the full list of convictions when asked by HuffPost UK.
Zita Holbourne – co-founder of BARAC UK, a group that campaigns against racism and for migrant rights, said that “those targeted for deportation are branded by government as hardened criminals”.
“But the reality is that some are criminalised by virtue of their immigration status and for others, they have committed lesser offences, [are the] victims of county lines, or have been convicted under the now defunct joint enterprise law,” she said.
Holbourne said many of those on the flight would likely be descendants of the Windrush generation and deportations should be stopped until all 30 recommendations from the Lessons Learned review have been implemented.
“The report found the Home Office to be institutionally ignorant of racism, recommendations include race equality training and teaching the history of colonialism and Black people in Britain,” she said.
“It it is irresponsible to go ahead with deportations without actually learning any lessons. There is a direct link to Britain’s colonial past of people being here in the UK and we believe that all the descendants of Windrush families in the UK should not be treated in this way.”
The Home Office said that none of the people on the flight were eligible for the Windrush Scheme.
Activists also say many of those set to be deported have been in the UK since they were children.
Holbourne added: “This is a double or triple punishment. If you were born in the UK you could serve your time, be punished, be rehabilitated and get on with your lives.”
It’s a thought echoed by the partner of one of the men set to be on the flight, who said it felt like she and their children were also being penalised by the government.
“We’re all going through it – we’re all being punished for it,” the woman – who asked not to be named – explained. The fact that it’s happening at Christmas has made it even harder on their children, she said.
“If it was an English guy who had done the crime, they would do the time, they would come out and they would get on with their lives.
“They’re double-punishing Jamaicans and their families and tearing families apart.”
Campaigners – as well as former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott – have urged the government to put a complete halt to deportations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s dangerous and wrong that the Home Office is continuing to deport people in the middle of an ongoing pandemic,” said Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
“It’s time the Home Office stopped exiling people to countries they don’t remember and suspended all deportations for the duration of the pandemic.
“No-one should have their life put at risk because they don’t have the right piece of paper.”
Meanwhile, Labour MP Abbott added: “These flights contain people who have lived here most of their lives, or who have no connection to Jamaica, or who have had little or no legal advice or representation. The government is in danger of breaking the law once again.”
Concerns have also been raised about the dangers of sending to people to detention centres amid the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the first lockdown in the spring, hundreds of people being held in immigration removal centres were released in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 55,000 people in the UK.
But in recent months, people allowed to leave at the start of the pandemic have been quietly locked up again, despite the health risks.
It emerged last week that detainees at Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre in Lincolnshire were having to self-isolate after cases of Covid-19 were identified.
“There is also the risk of spreading Covid in Jamaica transporting a whole plane of people who are coming from a region and country hit by a second wave,” Holbourne said.
But it’s not just the threat of infection. “Another aspect of Covid means there is no visiting allowed at detention centres so families cannot even say goodbye.”
This will leave children already losing their parents to deportation even more distraught,” she said.
“The fact they cannot say goodbye, that it is just before Christmas at the end of an already traumatic year in terms of how Covid has impacted our families, communities, work and jobs, education, bereavement, increased caring responsibilities etc… makes this even worse.”
More than 150,000 people have signed a petition started by Holbourne calling for ministers to put an end to charter deportation flights to Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action added: “This flight is not safe and many of the forced removals risk being unlawful, just like last time around.
“No wonder the British public are overwhelmingly opposed to our inhumane deportation laws – how can it be right for tens of British children to lose their loving fathers in the run up to Christmas?”
According to the Home Office, the government has removed “more than 6,400 foreign criminals” since January 2019 and has charted more than 30 deportation flights since April to countries including Albania, France, Germany, Ghana, Lithuania, Nigeria, Poland and Spain.