A brave act of civil disobedience has gone viral: Elin Errson, a Swedish student, refused to take her seat on a plane until the man who was going to be deported to Afghanistan was removed from the flight. Her actions have likely saved a man’s life.
In the UK, deportations are a fact of life for people who’ve moved here from overseas. Each year, tens of thousands of people are sent to countries to which they often have no connection, or where their life is at risk.
But Britain has its own rich history of resistance to forced deportations, of groups, communities and individuals taking direct action like Erin Errson did.
Last year, Samim Bigzad was due to be deported from the UK to Afghanistan on a Turkish Airways flight. Samim’s friends lobbied the airline via their helpline and social media. Others travelled to Heathrow and spoke with passengers who were boarding the plane. The action was a success: the pilot of the plane refused to fly with Samim on board.
There are countless stories like Samim’s. For years, migrant rights groups - like the Unity Centre in Glasgow - have put pressure on airlines to not carry out individual deportations. For many, this has bought time (often to pursue legal appeals). Yet these actions are not always successful, nor peaceful – especially for those being deported. Jimmy Mubenga resisted his deportation in 2010 onboard a British Airways flight. He was heavily restrained by security guards. He died of cardiac arrest. A witness overheard Mubenga say “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” for at least 10 minutes. The guards were found not guilty of manslaughter.
In 2014 the Government sought to deport Afusat Saliu and her two daughters to Nigeria, where they were at risk of FGM. Saliu was booked on a Virgin flight, and her supporters put pressure on Virgin founder Richard Branson, whose daughter had recently written against FGM on the company’s website. 120,000 people signed a petition but after some delays, Saliu and her daughters were still deported.
Four years on, Virgin this month announced that they will no longer help the Home Office deport people. This change happened due to pressure from campaign group Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants in the run up to this year’s Pride march in London (of which Virgin is a sponsor).
Virgin’s decision has precedent. And British Airways is now feeling the pressure. Their sponsorship of the London Pride is seen by many people as at odds with their role in “deporting members of [the LGBTQ+] community to possible death.” An online petition, by Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, already has over 49,000 signatures in a few weeks.
In response, the Home Office is increasingly bypassing commercial flights, reportedly relying instead on secretive ‘charter flights’. Shielded from public oversight, every month these ‘ghost flights’ allegedly forcibly remove people en masse from the UK. People are said to be shackled in “waist restraint belts” or “leg restraints”.
But as Home Office tactics change, so does the resistance: last year 15 anti-deportation activists blocked the take-off of a charter flight from Stansted airport. The Government has since charged them and they face potential life sentences. A group of MPs and public figures signed an open letter calling for the charges to be dropped and for the use of charter flights to end.
Elin Errson, the Stansted fifteen, the campaign against Virgin deportations, countless unreported actions – they all show that deportations can be stopped when people refuse to just sit down and look away. Resisting deportations can buy people more time for legal appeals, giving people a chance to establish their right to stay in the UK.
Yet for others who are not deported, it can mean returning to our harmful detention system, where people are interned without trial or time limit. Others may be released from detention, but endure the ‘open air prison’ of life in the hostile environment, with no access to housing, jobs or healthcare.
The struggle against deportations is part of a broader struggle. Ultimately, deportations and the larger oppressive border regime can’t function if workers and the public at large refuse to comply.