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Britain—the deportation nation

The British state is preparing to turn its threat to start mass deportations of ‘foreign criminals’ into reality. Nick Clark and Charlie Kimber explain how they hope to gain by spreading hate—and who benefits
Issue 2808

The Tories are pushing for mass deportations (pic: Guy Smallman)

‘My crime is to be a foreign national,” Hemin, an Iraqi-Kurdish asylum seeker, told Socialist Worker last week as, locked in a detention centre, he faced deportation. “There are 200 people here in two wings,” he said. “It’s full of Iraqi Kurds, Albanians, Romanians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis.”

In those few words, Hemin summarised the simple, racist truth behind immigration detention and deportation. It’s not because the government thinks the failed asylum seekers will really be safe in Rwanda, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or wherever else they’ve had to flee from.

It’s not even really because they might be convicted of a crime and are somehow more dangerous, more deserving of punishment, than others convicted of the same. As Hemin pointed out when he spent time in a prison of 913 inmates, the 903 British inmates never faced the threat of deportation upon release. But that fact does indicate the real point of detention and deportation.

They enforce the idea that some people have less right to live in Britain than others—purely because of their race or nationality. This idea is fundamental to the Tories’ war on migrants under home secretary Priti Patel. It’s how the Home Office justified tearing Hemin away from his family as part of the attempted “biggest deportation in a day” touted in the Daily Mail newspaper last week.

It’s also how they justify the plan to deport migrants to Rwanda—expected to begin next week. It’s a punishment for anyone whose arrival circumvents the border controls that decide who can come in and who can’t. This, said Patel, is “what the British public expects.”

That’s a direct appeal to nationalism—the idea that ordinary people across Britain share a common interest with their governments and bosses. It is, by its nature, tied to nation states with borders that decide who’s allowed in—and who is excluded. Detention and deportation are the horrific but logical outcomes.

Patel hopes it can prop up a flailing, crisis-ridden Tory government. But governments and bosses have used the same ploy for centuries. In the late 17th century, the developing modern French state expelled hundreds of thousands of people for not being “authentically French.” In 18th century Britain, the capitalist class pushed British national identity with allegiance to the monarchy, parliament and the flag. 

This involved the expulsion on political grounds, mostly of Irish republicans. And in the 19th century US, as governments tried to solidify the national identity following the civil war, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It banned the immigration of all Chinese labourers—and encouraged horrific massacres and pogroms against Chinese people already in the US.

Deportation and detention play essentially the same role in Britain today. As the government’s own figures show, the number of people arriving in Britain by small boat is tiny—28,526 in 2021.  But the Tories find it very useful to present those people as a threat to “the British public”, and themselves—and their cops and borders—as the defence.

It’s horror for the people on the receiving end. Charities that support asylum seekers say they are documenting several suicide attempts among those threatened with being sent to Rwanda. A Yemeni asylum seeker made a video saying that he had “no other choice but to kill myself” after finding out about Rwanda offshoring plans.

And the Independent newspaper reported the case of an Afghan asylum seeker who said he attempted suicide after being detained in preparation for being sent to Rwanda. Their crimes are the same as Hemin’s—to be foreign nationals and on the wrong side of Britain’s racist immigration laws.

Government lies spread terror

Airlines cash in on the cruelty of deportation flights. There is always some company that will take the money as a partner in mass deportations. Several high-profile cases include Titan Airways, a charter airline based at London Stansted Airport. It was, for example, responsible for the deportation flight blocked by the Stansted 15 group of protesters in March 2017 that was supposed to go to Nigeria.

Campaigners suspect it is one of those lined up for flights to Rwanda soon. Others who have been involved in mass deportation flights are TUI, Evelop Airlines, Hi Fly, and Air Tanker. Evelop operated the deportation charter to Jamaica in February 2020. But there is a far larger and better-known set of airlines that collaborate in the deportation of individuals. People expelled are put on scheduled flights, usually handcuffed to a security “escort”.

This is organised through the contractor Carlson Wagonlit. It has been the Home Office’s deportation travel agent since 2004, with the contract renewed twice since then. Its current seven-year contract, worth £5.7 million, will last until October 2024. The Home Office estimated in the contract announcement that it would spend £200 million on deportation tickets and charters over those seven years.

Carlson is a global business travel services company owned by US conglomerate Carlson Companies Inc. Carlson Wagonlit buys tickets from suppliers such as British Airways, Easyjet, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Royal Jordanian. But resistance can thwart the airlines’ plans. Sometimes seeing someone shackled and set for deportation, passengers have stood up on aircraft and stopped flights.

And a long-running campaign last year forced TUI to say it would no longer be part of deportation flights.

Horror helps the bosses

Even the horror serves a purpose—the threat of deportation works to spread fear among other migrants. And that’s a benefit to the bosses who’d like to exploit them. Most people who get deported from Britain aren’t asylum seekers—the government’s figures say there were 113 “asylum related” deportations in 2021.

That compares to 2,648 “non-asylum related” deportations in the same year. People from Romania, Albania, Poland and Lithuania made up more than two thirds of those. These are migrants that bosses in industries such as fruit picking rely on. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the number of deportations every year is falling just as bosses face a labour shortage. That might seem a contradiction.

But even deportation raids and round-ups are rarely designed to get rid of people on mass. Instead, it is a threat that hangs over the head of every other migrant—especially undocumented workers—who might otherwise speak out, stand up for themselves or rebel.

It tends to be justified by slurs and myths—that migrant workers bring criminals, that they lower wages or put a strain on housing and services. That’s terrible news for every worker—migrant or not—whose real interests in a cost of living crisis lie in fighting back to win higher wages together.

Money from misery

Corporations make huge sums housing asylum seekers in slum conditions as cheaply as possible. In 2019, the Home Office awarded seven ten-year contracts to provide accommodation for asylum seekers to three providers–Clearsprings Ready Homes, Mears Group and Serco.

These contracts are worth £4.5 billion over ten years. Serco, the outsourcer with its tentacles everywhere, is by far the biggest gainer, clawing in over £2 billion. The cheaper they provide the housing, the more profit they grab. In the longer term, people who often have faced war, persecution and imprisonment often end up in filthy shared homes. And they might be in a former military barracks or army camp.

But a real growth area is the use of hotels where people are placed when they first arrive. A report published last month by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said, “By November 2021, 21,500 asylum seekers were being accommodated in 181 hotels, more than double the figures in May 2021.”

Sometimes these are the sorts of hotels that exist mainly to sweep up people who the state wants dealt with at low cost. A Corporate Watch report earlier this year spoke to an Iraqi Kurdish family who arrived in Britain in November 2020.

Since then, the Home Office put the family in disgusting conditions in several hotels in London with their six children. They faced insect infestations, a ceiling caving in, insufficient food, a lack of electricity, and—when there has been power—dodgy and dangerous electrics.

Multinational chains also gain. One refugee campaigner told Socialist Worker that in their area, refugees are put in hotels run by Ibis, Best Western, Suites Hotel Group, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Britannia, Copthorne, Mercury, Metro, Novotel, Radisson, Ramada and Stay Club.

They don’t receive the treatment other customers would have, just the most basic food and services. And because they are supposedly well-fed and looked after in a hotel, the normal pittance of a £39.63 allowance is reduced to just £8 a week. But the state cash for the glittering hotel chains was handy during the pandemic shutdown and continues to fatten their profits and dividends.

Prison for no crime

Detention centres are yet another place where private vultures can cash in. Every detention centre in Britain—except for the government-run Morton Hall—is in the claws of one private security firm or another. This close-knit relationship between outsourcer and state in immigration was solidified under Tony Blair’s government. It bought together labour’s zeal for privatisation and obsession with clamping down on asylum seekers, opening Yarl’s Wood, Brooke House and other centres.

The government pays them to run the centres—and encourages them to do it as cheaply as possible by letting them keep any “savings” as profit. The result is squalor and brutality. Colnbrook, where Hemin is locked up, is run by Mitie on a £180 million year deal that ends next year.

He told Socialist Worker the conditions were like a “Category A security—which in prison is security for people with sentences of 30 years.”

“It’s packed full of people, and it’s dirty and horrible,” he said. “All this for being a foreign national.” The Detained Voices blog, which collects testimonies from migrants in detention, reveals even more. In one recent post, a Colnbrook detainee describes people testing positive for Covid every day, “no masks, no sanitisers, nothing.”

“They treat us worse than animals,” they said. “You have to share a room. There’s no privacy. There’s a toilet, a sink and a bunkbed. It’s like a proper jail. Some people here have been to jail before, and they said it’s the same.”

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