I had tens of constituents get in touch about the Home Office’s charter flight scheduled to deport up to 150 to Zimbabwe earlier this week. Thankfully, it does not appear that any constituents from Lewisham Deptford were scheduled aboard but I know that many constituents shared my opposition to the flight especially during the pandemic.
I was gravely concerned about this flight and possible danger to those scheduled aboard especially in the middle of a pandemic which has been shown to disproportionately impact Black communities. Brook House, where some scheduled aboard were being detained, had confirmed cases of COVID-19, there were reports of insufficient supplies of PPE and a hunger strike was staged against the flight.
As a global leader we have a duty to ensure that we are not deporting people to situations that risk them coming to serious harm. I am aware that some of those scheduled on this flight fear persecution on arrival as political dissidents and trade unionists. These fears must be taken seriously. According to Human Rights Watch, critics of the government are often abducted, tortured, arbitrarily arrested and violently assaulted by security forces and others. Worryingly, Zimbabwe is currently in the midst of its own COVID-19 surge. Unlike the UK, access to safe water and sanitation is a major issue, vaccine supply is very limited and Zimbabwe relies on foreign aid for key equipment like ventilators.
Many emails expressed concerns that the speed at which such charter flights are organised and the short notice given to those scheduled aboard means it is very difficult to ensure access to justice. I believe access to justice is a cornerstone of our democracy and support my Labour colleague Catherine West MP’s letter around this. If the Government wants the public to have confidence in the asylum system it must respect international law and ensure that those they seek to remove are able to enforce their rights.
I believe that the often last-minute nature of legal challenges, which can see people taken off the flight whilst it sits on the runway, speaks to the difficulty many people have in accessing adequate legal advice. Removals are common with Freedom of Information requests finding that some aircrafts the Home Office chartered, at great cost, had as little as five people aboard. Similar challenges meant only 14 people were removed on the flight although those removals leave their loved ones devastated. I know from supporting constituents in the past that even where deportations are stopped the experience of being threatened with deportation can have lasting emotional consequences.
For many of those scheduled on the flight the UK, not Zimbabwe, is their home. Some arrived as children, have no memory of Zimbabwe and no support network on arrival. The Government-commissioned Shaw Review, and its follow-up, commented that the deportation of people who came here as children and are ‘more British than foreign’’, was ‘deeply troubling’ and ‘disproportionate’. And a leaked version of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review advised Ministers to ‘consider ending all deportations’ of those who arrived as children.
Some of those set to be deported have been here for decades, are deeply embedded in communities, which want them to stay, as volunteers and raising their children who are British citizens. I worry that the experience of having a parent ripped away, at short notice, and without the chance to say a proper goodbye will be traumatic for those children. And long-term this pandemic has demonstrated that video calls are no substitute for in person contact with loved ones.
Since its release myself and my Labour colleagues have pressed the Government to implement the recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review in full and without delay. The Home Secretary’s apology for the Home Office’s institutional failings including ‘ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race’ must be matched by meaningful action to ensure nobody else faces such treatment. Just last year the Equality and Human Rights Commission ruled that the Government’s hostile environment policy broke equalities law. The Home Office signed a legal agreement to address these systemic failings, under a two-year action plan, less than four months ago. In the wake of the Windrush scandal and the EHRC’s ruling it is clear that reforms are urgently needed and long-overdue. I can assure you that I will continue to press for an end to the Hostile Environment and its callous features. We must have compassionate asylum system that centres human rights treating everyone, whatever their background, with dignity and respect.