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.