Last week the campaign to stop a 19-year-old A-level student from Mauritius, Yashika Bageerathi, from being deported reached a climax. Yashika and her family (her parents and two younger siblings) came to the UK and claimed asylum on the grounds that their lives were threatened by an abusive relative back home, but as Yashika has become an adult, her case is being considered separately from theirs, although their claims have all been turned down. Yashika was detained when her family reported to the Home Office on 19th March, as asylum seekers are required to do on a regular basis, and was expected to be deported last Tuesday, but it appears that British Airways refused to take her. Today, another deportation date (again, alone) was abandoned, for reasons unknown (perhaps because there is a court action to prevent her deportation, perhaps because Air Mauritius also refused to carry her). The campaign has strong local support, including the support of the headteacher from her school in Enfield, and a petition in her support has gained, as of this writing, 166,330 supporters.
Regardless of the merits of the Bageerathis’ asylum claim, it immediately struck me as simply vindictive and mean-minded to deport anyone just a few months before they are due to take exams that could give them a huge advantage in their lives, whether they spend it here, in Mauritius or anywhere else. She had conditional offers from several universities, which she might have been able to take up as an overseas student, or which could have enabled her to access higher education in Mauritius. True, education is at public expense, but she has already been in British schools for two years, so sending her home with nothing to show for it would simply mean money wasted; in any case, her local community who actually know her do not seem to mind paying for it.
As this and many previous cases where families were threatened with deportation, many British people are willing to campaign to make sure that their friends aren’t thrown out of the country once they have settled here, when their children have been in school for a couple of years and put down roots (the Kachepa case a few years ago is another example), yet, millions of us read newspapers every day which promote this kind of spiteful, mean-spirited attitude towards poor immigrants (and only poor ones) as well as a culture of disbelief and a notion that they only come here to avail themselves of the benefits system, rather than to work. This is why governments of both parties engage in gratuitous shows of toughness against foreigners, and Labour are particularly vulnerable as the corporate press are hostile to them anyway. The practice of deporting “foreign criminals”, regardless of whether their offence is particularly serious and regardless of the strength of their family ties, is an American import; a law was passed under Clinton that made all offenders without American citizenship liable for deportation after a media campaign, and this has led to people with American spouses and children, whose offences were years ago, being thrown out, along with people born abroad but who were brought to the USA as children. The expulsion of some of these people has led to an explosion in crime in some of their countries of origin.
The mainstream of the Labour party ever since Blair was elected is characterised by cowardice; they regard any Labour government as guests in a house that is owned by the Conservatives. They will not tackle the problem of press ownership which is absolutely vital to ensuring the viability of any progressive government in this country. Running a newspaper is an expensive operation, requiring large premises, machinery, the power to run it, vehicles to deliver the papers and fuel to run them, people to research and write the stories and people to print and distribute it, and so on. It follows that most newspapers will be owned by rich people, and rich people are inclined to have conservative views on matters fiscal because the same proportion of our income that the rest of us pay is a lot more money for them than it is for us, even if they have a lot more left. However, these same rich people have worked out that they can sell more copies by appealing to people’s base instincts: fear and suspicion of others, envy and resentment of success (hence the reams of stories tearing down famous people over real or invented peccadillos), stinginess and selfishness with money, and uncomplicated notions of justice which easily admit revenge. These appeals distract people from what rich people are doing by encouraging them to concentrate on people below them, or similar to them. The rich do not want us to question the fact that wealthy foreigners, who face little restriction on migrating to and operating in the UK, are buying up small houses in mediocre London locations for the prices of mansions, making prices unaffordable for ordinary people. They prefer that we hate poor immigrants instead, who may compete with us for jobs and housing but cause nothing like the kind of disruptive inflation that has been caused by London becoming a playground for the super-rich.
The same notions are clearly behind the new rules that the government has imposed on prisoners, which famously include not being able to receive books from their families, but they also include a ban on parcels from families containing such things as home-made cards and underwear. The latter is particularly important to women as they do not get prison-issue underwear, and underwear stained during a particularly heavy period or two will need replacing. In a letter to the (female) poet laureate who had protested against the ban on receiving books (I am not sure if she mentioned underwear), Grayling (the justice secretary) claimed that allowing prisoners to receive regular parcels would “put in jeopardy the efforts of prison staff to keep drugs and other illicit materials out of prisons”; however, the Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform said that prisoners had indeed been able to receive such items in many prisons until last November and this had worked perfectly well until then. The reason given at the time was that their “IEP [Incentives and Earned Privileges] scheme is not undermined”.
The same mentality of petty cruelty, vindictiveness, class hatred and resentment is behind so much of the present government’s “reforms”, from the entire welfare reform programme to the cuts to Legal Aid, which leave poor people to litigate in person when they do not have the knowledge or the skills to do so, and end up losing their children to their spouse who can afford a lawyer, even if he is abusive. But it also manifests in individual decisions, such as their insistence on sending Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the Boat Race in 2012, back to Australia despite his having a British wife and child and having lived in the UK since 2001 — an entirely vindictive, disproportional response to an offence that hurt nobody and was committed as a protest. The same tendencies were seen in the actions of John Major’s government in the mid-1990s, deporting two members of the Onibiyo family from Nigeria who had been here for years and were declared opponents of their country’s military government (including their teenaged son who had grown up in the UK, although he was born in Nigeria) and harping on “austerity” in the prison system.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people will sign a petition to try to save Yashika Bagheerathi from being deported at such a ridiculous time shows that most of us are not the moronic brutes that this government makes us out to be. The fact that the government does not openly display this kind of spiteful behaviour just before an election, that they can get elected on the promise of a National Care Service and talk of compassionate conservatism (even though they have no intention of delivering any of these things) also shows that displays of petty cruelty are not a vote-winner. Britain has to decide what kind of country it is; every story like this makes it more likely that Scotland will vote to leave the UK, such that the Tories will never rule over them again with their cynicism, class hatred and petty spite. I fear that we will never see progressive government in this country as long as the Tory press remains influential even when their party is out of office, but we should know Tory spite and Labour cowardice by their names and identify them. A country that would send a young woman back to a country she has not been to for years just before important exams that would give her a chance to make something of her life is a mean, small-minded, spiteful country. Is that the kind of country this is?