Black lives and immigration detention
18 June 2020
Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed, on a flight from the UK to Angola in 2010, by immigration officials contracted by the Home Office as his deportation ‘escorts’. Passengers heard him repeatedly call out “I can’t breathe”. The men who killed him were acquitted at trial.
Immigration detention in the UK is part of a Europe-wide resistance to migration, driven by inequality, from the global south, and of an enduring British system long focused on migrants from former colonies. People from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Jamaica and Nigeria consistently form the largest national groups in detention centres. Most detainees are ‘New Commonwealth’ nationals - that is, they are mostly poor and mostly black.
Detention has become a stage in the theatre of enforcement, as governments have sought to send signals of deterrence to migrants, and of control and security to the electorate. ‘Go home’, a phrase famously used by the far right, was briefly adopted by the Home Office. The ‘hostile environment’, its own name for its punitive policies, criminalises migrants, annuls long connections and contributions, and places settled BAME communities under suspicion. The detention, deportation and destruction of lives wreaked by the resulting Windrush persecution has not appeased but offended public opinion, suggesting that the culture of hostility is the system’s own, and that colonial thinking lives on in this cruel degradation of black lives.
Administrative detention, another colonial legacy, expresses this racialised ‘othering’ in institutional form. Its deterrent effect is doubtful - more detainees are released into the UK than removed from it - and its signal of control is weakened by its own secrecy. What it very powerfully achieves is the radical exclusion of black people, recently arrived in the UK or residents since childhood. They are held without judicial process or time limit, segregated from families, in constant uncertainty. This psychological assault marshals the power of the state against the possibility that they might belong in our society. The accompanying physical violence includes assaults, suicides and the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga.
In the new surge of Black Lives Matter protests, we see the release of previously pent up voices, newly empowered by the latest outrages to reveal personal experience and advocate for change. Music In Detention is a conduit for similar outpourings, during detention and after release. We started from a belief in self-expression as a human right, and music as a means of both healing and resistance. Our ultimate aim is that “our society treats migrants with dignity and humanity, making detention obsolete”, and we understand this to be one task of many in the cause of ending structural inequality.
We stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, and will look for how best to express this solidarity in our work and organisation. We aim to build a national platform for detainees’ creative work and experiences, bring their radically marginalised voices into the public realm, and contribute to a public discourse which will help achieve systemic change.
To support Black Lives Matter now:
And to listen:
I was made by the river
Where they shot a man to death
That’s my home, that’s my home
River flowing through my veins
River flowing through my heart
Where there is darkness there is always light
Stop this separation, let us all unite