By Casper Hughes
“You start off thinking the system will be fair to you but discover as you go that its not. You have to look for something else; look for a way to actually fight. You have to ditch your illusions and naivety. Then you join Movement for Justice.”
Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary organiser, Antonia Bright is focused and passionate. I talk to her on a bitterly cold, yet clear Saturday afternoon. We have just marched down Rye Lane, as part of a loud and vibrant protest against the UK’s immigrant detention system, and an impending charter flight to Nigeria. Pots and pans collide, whistles are blown, the chant ‘No human is illegal!’ is stumbled on again, urging the group on through the streets.
According to the Home Office, people are detained and deported for four main reasons; denial of asylum, expiration of a work or tourist visa, no documentation whatsoever, or committing a crime and contravening the conditions of asylum. This march, Bright tells me, is one of a series of actions aimed at deterring both the governments of Jamaica and Nigeria from cooperating with Home Office deportations, as well as fostering a local, determined resistance to Immigration Enforcement raids. A charter flight to Nigeria is planned for 31st January: Bright hopes the work they do now can prevent some of South East London’s migrant community being forced on that plane.
‘We know that in the run up to mass deportation flights, they often grab a lot of people at the last minute,’ says Bright. ‘A lot of people who end up on a flight were seized the week before. They’re often in a kind of paralysis; they don’t know what to do or who to look to for help.”
Whereas most deportees are placed individually on commercial flights, charter flights allow the Home Office to remove large numbers of people of particular nationalities. On September 7 2016, 47 people were scheduled to be deported from the UK to Jamaica. The vast majority of them had come to the UK when they were children, their families and lives were in the UK. Yet on routine visits to the Home Office to notify the authorities of their whereabouts, they were taken away against their will to an immigration removal centre in preparation for the charter flight. Thanks to the work of their lawyers, five were removed from the flight last minute. The other 42 were not so lucky.
Bright was one of many protestors who staged an emergency demo outside of the Jamaican Embassy the night before the flight. She suggests that the Home Office gets away with it due to the vulnerability of those detained. ‘It’s in that confusion and fear that the Home Office get away with it. They don’t win based on the actual truth of anyone’s existence or right to be here. They win by default because you don’t know what to do until it’s too late.’
‘This is about dumping people in countries that have nothing for them. There’s even grandparents on these flights. They’re not going to back to any kind of job even. It really is just killing people. By doing the two weeks of action now, as we’re in the run up to the charter flight,’ she adds, ‘there’s a chance that we can build confidence in the community. We’re here to let them know there is a movement.’
The march down Rye Lane drew a variety of reactions. Some looked on bewildered, others seemed disapproving of the disruption to routine – to some unwritten rule of public decorum. Many, in a community greatly affected by Immigration Enforcement raids nodded their heads in approval and made sure the leaflets were handed out as the procession passed.
A Freedom of Information request by freelance journalist Philip Keinfield in April 2015, uncovered the scale of the Home Office’s operation to detain and deport illegal immigrants in the Capital. Between 2010 and 2015, there were 11 raids per day – a total of 19,853.
The East and South East of London, including Peckham, were the worst hit. E15, a postcode which encompasses parts of Stratford and West Ham, had 1,396 raids in the five year period. E6, a postcode in Newham, was the second worst affected with 776 raids. For many, in some of the country’s most diverse areas, the possibility of a neighbour, colleague or family member being picked up in Immigration Enforcement raids is a constant source of fear.
However, it is this confusion and fear that the Home Office is adept at exploiting; evident in their willingness to detain and subsequently deport people on charter flights who are in the midst of long-running legal battles to regularise their immigration status. Yet, while the Home Office thrives on this fear, Movement for Justice thrives on turning that fear and vulnerability into hope and the tools with which to fight back. ‘When you’re in this, you know this is everybody’s fight,’ Bright tells me, as the crowds disperse in front of Peckham Library. Come 31st January, we will know if enough have come to realise this.