Look at modern British history, and you’ll find that the “criminal” and the “immigrant” blur into one another in popular and official thinking. In Victorian England, crime was often blamed on Irish immigrants (“dangerous classes” were labelled with the Irish-derived name “hooligans”), and then on Jews from eastern Europe. These narratives neatly anticipated the way the spectre of “black criminality” was peddled by the press in postwar Britain, as well as contemporary narratives about Muslims and sexual abuse.
These entangled histories – where the racialised outsider, the criminal and the immigrant often refer to the same person or group – provide the backstory to more recent policies targeting “foreign criminals”. We should not be surprised, then, to learn that the Home Office is chartering two mass deportation flights to Jamaica and Nigeria/Ghana in a few weeks’ time – after a flight to Vietnam on Wednesday 28 July and one to Zimbabwe last week. And we can be sure that they will justify these mass expulsions by claiming that those booked on the flight are “dangerous foreign criminals” – a tried and tested formula.
Mass deportation charter flights were introduced under New Labour in 2001, and thousands of people have been expelled this way since. They were introduced, in part, to negate the possibility of protest – from deportees and others on public commercial flights – and they have been embroiled in wider diplomatic relations between the UK and receiving states. However, charter flights have become especially controversial in recent years.
The Covid pandemic slowed down deportations and compelled the release of most, but not all, immigration detainees. And yet those defined as criminals received little clemency. People with criminal records, along with those who crossed the Channel in boats, were kept in detention, regardless of the Covid risks. The UK continued to charter deportation flights for the former group. On the recent flight to Zimbabwe, this reportedly included people who had committed driving offences or worked with false documents.
The government releases statistics on the number of “foreign offenders” deported each year, and the patterns are interesting. In the years leading up to 2020, the number of overall enforced returns were falling – from nearly 15,000 in 2013 to slightly more than 7,000 in 2019 – but the number of “foreign offenders” stayed steady (hovering between 5,000 and 6,500 over the same period). As a result, the proportion of them among all returns has been increasing, and the proportion of EU nationals within that group has been increasing too. “Foreign offenders”, especially European ones, are now among the most likely to be deported.
However, they are not all treated equally. The Guardian recently revealed that while an average of 65% of those convicted for at least 12 months were deported between 2015 and 2020, for Jamaican nationals the proportion rose to 75% – higher still for Ghanaian (76%), Nigerian (90%), Albanian (90%) and Vietnamese nationals (84%).
It seems that disproportionality in the criminal justice system – wherein black people are more likely to be stopped, arrested, charged and convicted – is repeated in the Home Office’s deportation priorities. That said, Albanian and Vietnamese nationals have it just as bad, or worse. This might be because the Home Office pursues the deportations of these national groups more aggressively, and assesses their criminal histories more harshly; or because these national groups are less likely to have access to decent legal representation.
But it is also important to recognise the central role of bilateral and diplomatic ties in facilitating deportations. Deportation arrangements are often fastened on to wider diplomatic negotiations, and aid funding is increasingly contingent on compliance with UK immigration control. Indeed, the new Nationality and Borders Bill promises to withhold visas from countries which fail to cooperate with removals. The more powerful states doing the deporting use their clout to compel weaker states to accept “deportees”.
In September 2020, the UK and Vietnam signed a joint declaration, which included plans “to hold annual migration talks at senior official level enabling both sides to review cooperation and to discuss new challenges as well as pathways for regular and safe migration, commit to developing a joint operational team and increasing capacity building and training”. This might explain why Vietnamese nationals with criminal records are now so likely to be deported, regardless of the prevalence of trafficking cases among them. It certainly helps explain the recent introduction of charter flights from the UK to Vietnam.
Most people on these flights will have been here for many years. Many will have arrived as children, and many will now have children of their own. Deportations have a devastating impact not only on individuals but on the loved ones they leave behind, and these cases would often be successfully appealed with decent legal representation. However, legal aid has been decimated and appeal rights slashed.
The idea that anyone with a criminal record is somehow dangerous and deserving of banishment must be contested head-on. The suggestion that deportation after serving a criminal sentence forms a kind of “double punishment” is a common refrain, and it is true – but we should remember that the initial punishment is often equally unjust. We know that racialised groups and migrants are more likely to be criminalised, and that most forms of social harm do not get their day in court.
If we want to build a society that isn’t obsessed with cruelly deporting people from their homes – a world where people who sell drugs or act violently get a second chance, rather than being locked up and then exiled from everything they know – then we need to challenge dominant ideas about crime and immigration. Put simply, bundling people who have served time on flights in the middle of the night does not make us safer, happier or more free. It just offers a sinister spectacle for the political right.