In Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid’s prescient new novel, Exit West, two young lovers confront a world being torn apart by conflict and inequality and re-made through migration. Part of the book is set in a future London very much like today’s London, where people who’ve arrived from other countries wait to see if the violence of “the nativists” will force them out. Standing between them and possible physical confrontation, as well as the iron gates of detention centers, are the activists.
In the pre-Brexit and Trump world, activists from a variety of movements (environmental, migration, and so on) across the West were often much maligned, dismissed in liberal and even Leftist circles as impractical and too idealistic, their movements rarely covered in the mainstream press. But in this new world we find ourselves in — where cruelty towards people on the move is now US and UK government policy — direct action emerges as the necessary response.
On Tuesday night, 17 activists in Essex outside London evaded airport security and ran onto a runway at Stansted Airport, throwing their bodies on the tarmac and chaining themselves to a plane to prevent a government charter flight of approximately 50 Nigerian and Ghanaians — along with an estimated 100 guards, two per person — from departing. The UK government’s detention of people it deems irregular migrants or failed asylum-seekers is unique in Europe — with a sprawling system where people can be detained for indefinite periods of time. People in detention centers are often given no warning before receiving an order to report that same day for a flight out of the country. They don’t have time to say goodbye to family members or contact a lawyer. People on Tuesday’s flight included a man who had lived in the UK for 18 years, a lesbian woman who says her abusive ex-husband is waiting to kill her, and Lovelyn Edobor, a 49-year old woman who uses a wheelchair. The Guardian reported that when Lovelyn asked to use the airport bathroom, she was forced into a waist restraint belt and dragged along on a chain “like a goat.”
According to Emily Hall, a spokesperson for End Deportations, one of the group’s involved in Tuesday’s protest, temporarily halting a forced return may buy someone enough time to find the legal aid needed to challenge the deportation order. “It’s a last resort tactic,” said Hall. “But buying someone even 24 hours can help.” The activists could only purchase this time through putting their bodies on the line; they were subsequently all arrested.
Although elements of the UK’s program are unique, the UK is not alone in Europe in trying to get rid of people it deems unworthy of residence. Germany has signed numerous agreements with other countries to facilitate deportations of failed asylum seekers and migrants, and in early 2017 has sent asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan. A draft law presented last week to the German parliament would enforce even stricter deportation rules. Meanwhile, Austria wants to stop providing food and water to people whose asylum claims are rejected, and is debating requiring unemployed refugees to work unpaid at jobs the government deems “of public utility.” Otherwise known as slave labor.
When the state fails to treat people humanely, only individuals and civil society can step in. Will we witness the swelling and expansion of the anti-border movements in Europe and elsewhere as alternatives to governments ordering the stricter policing of non-native bodies?
In Germany, churches have increasingly begun protecting failed asylum-seekers with sanctuary, and the state has so far declined to physically remove people in the church’s care. As of January 2017, German churches were providing this protection for 547 people. Tuesday’s UK airport protest is another promising sign that people are willing to risk arrest to fight policies that tear families apart and endanger lives. “When you have insecure immigration status, you don’t have life,” said one of the men who was being deported on Tuesday’s blocked flight. “Your life is not considered important. It should not be like this. Human life is more important than immigration status.”