On 28 March, I was part of the ‘End Deportations – Stop Charter Flights’ action by Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants and Plane Stupid at Stansted airport, which successfully prevented a mass deportation to Nigeria and Ghana.
We took this action in solidarity with the 57 people on board the flight who were being forcefully removed from the UK. We were in touch with some of these people and knew their stories and knew the potential fates that awaited them if they were deported.
One man has lived in the UK for over 18 years and has no connections in Nigeria. He told the Detained Voices website that he would rather kill himself than be destitute. A lesbian woman was told by the man that she was forced to marry in Nigeria that if she returned he would kill her.
These visceral stories were in our minds as we mentally prepared for the action and as we locked ourselves to the plane.
We also had in our minds the broader structural racism of mass deportations, the home office’s border regime and Theresa May’s policy to make the UK a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.
Mass deportations are used to prevent resistance to removal. When people are deported on commercial flights, if just one or two passengers refuse to sit down because they are uncomfortable with the deportation taking place, the pilot can refuse to take the deportee.
When Jimmy Mumbenga was killed by four G4S guards in October 2010, this was done in front of passengers who clearly heard him say that he couldn’t breathe.
During deportations on charter flights, each deportee may have two guards and can be restrained for the entire flight. All of this is done away from public scrutiny, in quiet industrial parts of the airport. These brutal practices are hidden in the shadows.
When I’ve been involved in other forms of activism, related to climate change for example, although I know that the issues are real and have complex implications for people (particularly Black, Brown and indigenous people in the Global South) and non-humans, it can sometimes still remain abstract.
This hasn’t been the case at all in any of my involvement in asylum- or migration-related work.
Whether it’s meeting asylum seekers in a night shelter who were from Afghanistan and who’ve been destitute for over eight years, or it’s waving to detainees inside Harmondsworth, Colnbrook or Yarls Wood detention centres – with the knowledge that at some point you can can just walk away but they’re forced to stay indefinitely – these interactions are extremely real and at times gut-wrenchingly painful.
For this reason, it’s been hard to really process the Stansted action. There have been highs: stopping the flight.
Lows: the flight being rescheduled two days later. Middles: finding out that less than half of those who were supposed to be on the flight were on the second flight.
And more highs: finding out that at least one person has been released on bail from detention and many of the group were even able to meet this person when they spoke on a panel discussion. It’s all a bit of a head fuck.
All this means when someone says something like – ‘Nice action, it’s my favourite of all time’ – it’s hard to connect with that.
While it has had tangible impacts on people’s lives, it’s a step in the right direction towards ‘intersectional’ activism and has brought the brutal racist practices of the home office into the spotlight. It’s still hard to think in simple terms of success or failure when there are so many other people inside and so much work to be done.
Just being in this racist, misogynistic, classist, heterosexist, transphobic world is painful, and though fighting back is an empowering experience, it brings you right up close to the things that hurt us the most.