The Home Office has found itself under the pressure of late after it came in for criticism from campaigners, lawyers, politicians and celebrities over the issue of deportation flights.
Under current UK law, individuals who are not British citizens who receive prison sentences exceeding 12 months are automatically in line for deportation, unless a specified exception applies. Those convicted of serious crimes or persistent offenders can also be deported under the 1971 Act if the move is deemed ‘conducive to the public good’.
Jamaican deportation flights
In November last year, a planned deportation charter flight to Jamaica gained significant press attention. Although deportations to the country make up just a tiny proportion of total deportee numbers – in the two years to November 2020, less than 1% of all enforced returns were to Jamaica according to a Home Office factsheet – charter flights destined for Jamaica are particularly controversial given the legacy of the Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Caribbean immigrants wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement, and because many of those deported have lived in the UK for decades and have families living in the UK.
In the specific case of the 2 December deportation, 82 black figures in the public eye wrote to airlines urging them not to participate in the planned deportation of 50 Jamaican nationals who had been convicted of criminal offences in the UK. Despite significant pressure from campaigners, as well as more than 60 MPs and peers, who signed a letter to the Home Secretary, the deportation flight went ahead, but only 13 individuals were deported, after a number of late legal challenges.
Bella Sankey, Director of the campaign group Detention Action, decried what she referred to as a “cowboy operation” that “was stopped in its tracks by judges intervening to defend those whose lives are at risk in Jamaica”. The issue, however, is rather more nuanced than Sankey’s emotive language suggests. In many cases, those deported have been convicted of serious and violent crimes, including murder and rape. Their combined sentences stretched to over 100 years, with three convicted of murder. What of the impact on their victims and the families of their victims, one might ask?
The Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, Chris Philp, provided the other side of the coin in a statement on Twitter: “They have committed crimes which have a devastating impact on victims and families,” he wrote. He outlined his determination to deport “foreign criminals” in order “to keep the British public safe”.
Effects on children
The question of the impact on children in the face of deportations is a troublesome one. Families, campaigners argue, have been torn apart, with children left effectively fatherless. “The tragedy of this tale is the many devastated children who have had a loving parent forcibly ripped from their lives without any consultation or being able to make their voice heard,” Sankey said. “This is child cruelty plain and simple, and it will not stand”.
Under current rules, the 2007 UK Borders Act stipulates that families must demonstrate that the impact of separation on children would not be “unduly harsh”. The Home Office currently defines this impact on family members as “excessively cruel”, with the emphasis on excessive setting something of a high bar.
Families for Justice, a group campaigning for the effect on children to be formally assessed in cases of mandatory repatriation, submitted a statement to the Home Office ahead of the 2 December deportation flight. Part of the statement read: “Our children have been professionally neglected and inexplicably made to feel unwelcome in the country we call home. Our children’s British birthrights have been disregarded. We are saddened about the systematic disregard for the mental health of our children and the unassessed separation they are put through.”
Notably, two children brought a case to a halt the deportation of their father and others on the flight, claiming that the Home Office had failed to properly assess the best interests of the deportees’ children. The siblings were hoping to achieve an injunction preventing the flight from departing until an assessment was carried out on the impact on all of the children with fathers on the flight. The action failed, although the father in question was removed from the flight as the result of a separate legal action.
The Home Office currently has no plans to investigate the impact on minors in relation to deportation cases. But, with the Home Office doubling down on its determination to deport the remaining individuals who received reprieves, and campaign groups and human rights lawyers gearing up for another battle to prevent this, the issue is set to run and run in 2021 – both in the courts and, inevitably, in the media.