Wednesday, 22 June 2011

No Borders activists blockade deportation flight to Iraq

As No Borders Brighton reported last week, yesterday say 70 Iraqi refugees scheduled for deportation yesterday. However, the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns has confirmed that a court injunction stopped the flight. This came as activists staged a blockade of the detention centre in the hopes of preventing the busload of refugees from leaving.

According to the report on Indymedia;
The blockade started at 4.45pm. The single access road to the business park housing both Colnbrook and Harmondsworth detention centres was blocked with three lock-ons, each one encasing the arms of two people in blocks of concrete mixed with steel, glass, and other materials. Around 30 more people supported the blockade with bodies, banners and noise. They included members of the detainees' families and others from the Iraqi Kurdish community. As the afternoon went on, more people arrived following call-outs on the web, texts and tweets. A few locals passing by also stopped and joined in.

Meanwhile, the Immigration Advisory Service lawyers, representing many of the deportees, were hard at work pursuing a judicial review on the basis that the forced deportation to Iraq would breach deportees' human rights under international law. Evidence of recent escalation in fighting in Kurdistan and other regions contradicts the Home Office's claim that parts of Iraq are now "safe" (see here for more).

Earlier in the day, prisoners had been moved from other detention centres across the country to the Heathrow centres to get everyone together for the flight. These included more than 20 held in Campsfield immigration prison near Oxford, who were on hunger strike. Shortly after 4pm, prisoners were told that they were about to be moved onto buses headed for the plane. Screws from contractors Serco and GEO, who run the two Heathrow prisons, started to round up the first coach load. Another company, Reliance, supplied the guards for the buses, usually two per prisoner. (G4S lost the contract for deportation muscle after the killing of Jimmy Mubenga last year). The coaches were hired from subcontractors WH Tours and Woodcock Coaches, both based in Crawley near Gatwick.

Around 5.15pm, half an hour into the blockade, the first word came through that the judicial review had been successful and won an injunction against the mass deportation. But it wasn't yet clear whether the injunction applied to the whole flight or just to some of the prisoners, and we were still getting reports of some prisoners being loaded onto coaches. In the past the Home Office has thrown legality to the wind and filled up extra spaces on flights with new people, even though they had not been served with so-called removal directions (official deportation order letters) giving them a chance to appeal. We were determined to continue the blockade until we could be sure the whole flight had been stopped.

It took half an hour for the police to turn up. When they did, they looked overwhelmed and confused, they made no attempt at first to clear the blockade, just stood watching with the irate Serco and GEO staff. It was only at 8pm that a new "heavy mob" turned up from City of Westminster Police, including one cameraman. The senior officer in charge read a Section 14 of the Public Order Act notice, ordering us to move across the street or be arrested. Next we were expecting the specialist lock-on cutting team. Besides reinforcements in various materials, the lock-ons featured glass tubes around the arms, and nails ready to smash the glass under pressure. People in the lock-ons could be seriously injured by cut arteries unless specialists removed them with extreme care. It goes against all instincts and dignity to lay down and passively put your life in the hands of cops. But it has proven an effective tactic which can hold a blockade for several hours.

Meanwhile, sometime after 7pm, it seemed that the screws, backed by lots of cops with dogs, were trying to get round the blockade by opening an old unused gate round the back. The exit was too narrow for coaches to pass, but it seemed they were trying to take people out in smaller groups using Reliance security vans. Leaving some supporters for the lock-ons, others went round the back to try and stop them. There we faced a stand-off with about 15 police plus the corporate thugs of Serco, GEO and Reliance.

As the blockade held, it also obstructed the arrival of more Reliance vans as well as the shift change, with many screws clearly pissed off for not being able to leave or get in, and some trying to drive through the lock-ons. More information was coming in on the legal situation and the events inside. Eventually we got confirmation that the 20 prisoners who had been put on the first bus to the airport had been taken back to the wings. By 8.40pm virtually all the erstwhile deportees were accounted for: ten people had agreed to return voluntarily to Iraq, none of the others would fly. So we decided to lift the blockade. There were no arrests, and we even got to keep the lock-ons for next time!

After we moved off, we got to talk on the phone with some of the prisoners who had been scheduled for the flight. They were cheering and clapping. Word will spread around all other immigration prisons now about the action. The cancellation of this flight is an important victory in the struggle against deportations. A charter flight like this costs the Home Office around £150,000 for the plane, security, etc. Legal action was successful this time, but it is not always the case. The blockade may have also helped buy lawyers time to win the injunction, and then to ensure it was applied to all the prisoners, who have to be individually included by name. The blockade also caused further costly disruption to the two detention centres.

But most importantly, perhaps, we hope the action will inspire further acts of resistance, both within and without. This is not the first deportation blockade in the UK, but it is the first since Colnbrook was last blockaded in May 2009. Since then, mass deportation flights have become increasingly frequent, and now also include charters coordinated by the EU joint border police Frontex, which involve several European countries. But resistance is building. Across Europe, activists on the outside have organised numerous blockades and other actions (e.g., Belgium 1 | Belgium 2 | Sweden). The main role of these actions is perhaps as support and solidarity for prisoners on the inside, who have been rebelling with riots and sabotage as well as hunger strikes (here | Italy | Belgium | Greece | Australia etc.). We have much to learn and build. We hope that yesterday at Heathrow revitalises the struggle against the deportation machine in the UK.
It remains heartening to see that such actions are still taking place, especially at a time of heightened class conflict such as now. The No Borders movement remains one of the "invisible struggles." Many people remain unaware of the issues at stake, let alone that there are people struggling and taking action over them.

However, to presume because of this that the work they do is irrelevant would be a mistake. Previously, Paul Stott has cited it as an example of the anarchist movement's "inherent ability to isolate itself, and to make itself look silly, obs[c]ure and distant from people's experiences and aspirations." Others have made similar points, and Manchester No Borders deals well with the main criticisms here.

What I would add is that refugees and "illegal" migrants are also working class people exploited by capitalism. In fact, they are at the sharpest end of it - often without not only basic legal protection and recognition, but the kind of solidarity and organisation that has allowed workers to stand up to the capitalist system. The result of which situation is only that they are perpetually at the whim of the ruling class - creating precisely the kind of black market for labour and undercutting of jobs, wages, conditions, etc that comprise the legitimate worries preyed upon by the media and politicians in making people despise or fear migrants.

Rather than perpetuating this situation either through ignorance or misguided populism, it should be roundly applauded that there are those willing to stand in solidarity with these people. Isolated from the kind of social environment that allows for strong community and workplace struggles, cut off by the legal system, for them the need for direct action is critical. It is important that they take such action for themselves, and the recent examples cited on the Indymedia piece are the hunger strikers in Campsfield, the rioters in Brook House, and the Yarls Wood Four.

But this doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to acknowledge and support their struggles. Immigration controls and the injustice they wreak are integral to the system of global capitalism. If nothing else, we can't ignore their existence and the effects that has on people whilst hoping to build a new, better society within the shell of the old.