Will the UK government sentence 15 migrant rights activists to life in prison over a peaceful protest?

In an unprecedented legal case described as “a crushing blow for human rights in the UK”, a group of anti-deportation activists are waiting to find out if they will be sentenced to life imprisonment under anti-terrorism laws for taking non-violent direct action to ground a Home Office deportation flight.

On 28 March 2017, 15 activists from three groups – Lesbian & Gays Support the Migrants, End Deportations and climate-activists Plane Stupid – cut through the security fence at London’s Stansted Airport and chained themselves to a charter flight that was scheduled to deport 60 vulnerable people to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The protesters were initially charged with aggravated trespass, which carries a maximum three-month prison sentence, but four months later the attorney general, the Conservative MP Jeremy Wright, allowed for the prosecution of the activists by the Crown Prosecution Service under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act.

After a nine-week trial, in December 2018 they were convicted of endangering the safety of an airport, a serious terrorism-related offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Their sentencing has been confirmed for 6 February 2019, the day after up to 50 people are set to be deported to Jamaica in a government chartered plane.

Melanie Strickland is one of the Stansted 15. She says she was motivated by the increasingly ‘hostile environment’ against migrants and asylum seekers in the UK, which escalated from 2012 onward after the then-home secretary, Theresa May (now prime minister), stated her aim to make life so difficult for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ that they would be forced to leave the country.

The policy, which is directly linked to the ruling Conservative government’s illogical obsession with bringing net migration to the UK down to the tens of thousands, has had a devastating impact on various migrant groups, including long-settled communities from the Commonwealth, particularly the Caribbean. Their plight was highlighted by the Windrush scandal which revealed the way in which many elders have been denied access to jobs, pensions, medical care and accommodation, and in the worst cases deported, because of administrative oversights.

“From volunteering at my local migrants’ centre I saw how [asylum seekers] are treated appallingly. People have claims refused, they face extreme poverty as they cannot work, and they must live on £36 (approximately US$47) a week. Many people have fled conflict zones, wars, sexual violence and really horrific, traumatised lives. They come to the UK for safety,” she tells Equal Times.

Strickland says that she and several friends decided to take direct action against the forced deportations because “we wanted to take action that would tangibly help those being immorally and unlawfully deported.”

The Stansted 15’s actions successfully prevented the government-chartered Boeing 767 from taking off. Drawing from various Freedom of Information requests she sent to the Home Office, Strickland discovered that: “The Home Office tried to deport all 60 people immediately but could only charter a smaller plane for just over half the people. Then other people were deported in twos or threes until September 2017.”

Of the 60 people on the plane on 28 March 2017, 11 remain in the UK; two have been granted the right to remain, while a third person has been issued with a residency card because of their relationship to a citizen of the European Economic Area.

“On the plane there was a lesbian woman who feared being returned to Nigeria, which is one of the most repressive places globally for LGBT people. Mob violence is common and lynching…is not unheard of. The police do nothing. Anyone found to be gay can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.”

The Stansted 15 launched an appeal against their conviction on 7 January 2019. One hundred pages long, it includes questions about the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to increase the charges against them. The appeal also challenges the judge’s decision to direct the jury to ignore the defendants’ claim that they were acting out of necessity, to protect the lives of those on the plane.

Raj Chada, a partner at Hodge, Jones & Allen – the law firm that’s representing the Stansted 15 – tells Equal Times that the fact that three of the deportees were later allowed to live in the UK calls their entire conviction into question: “It seems somewhat strange, where it is accepted by one arm of the state that three of the individuals should never have been on the plane, and it is only because of our clients’ actions that they are still in the country.”

He also describes the terrorism-related conviction of the Stansted 15 as “remarkable”: “I have done this job 20 years and I have never had a case where I started on day one with an offence that my clients were facing that had a maximum of three months prison, and later someone, somewhere, for some reason reviewed it, and with no new evidence decided it was worthy of life imprisonment.”

‘The hostile environment permeates everything’

The Stansted 15 have received widespread support and their case has resulted in several solidarity protests, including one featuring hundreds of people outside the Home Office the day after their conviction.

Chada tells Equal Times that he does not know why the state chose to amplify the terrorism charge but says: “What it exposes is how the hostile environment permeates everything that the government is trying to do. Why have a government barrister there every day for the trial? Why were the Home Office so concerned about their practices being exposed? How is it that 11 people are still in the country, three of them with right to remain and appeals that should have been heard were not? The substance of the case is our clients were right. What it highlights is the failings and disgraceful nature of the hostile environment.”

Although the UK’s stance towards migration and asylum hardened under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (2010-15) and subsequent Conservative governments, charter flights of enforced removals actually began under Tony Blair’s Labour government. Pinar Aksu, a former child refugee turned refugee advocate has first-hand experience:

“[In 2007,] I was in Dungavel [immigration removal centre] for one week, and then to Yarl’s Wood [immigration removal centre] for two months when I was 15 years old,” explains Aksu. She was detained in the UK alongside her immediate family, including her 10-year-old brother and four-year-old sister, after fleeing persecution in Turkey.

“There was no time-limit [to the length of time you could be detained] back then, and there is none now. You cannot leave the building,” she tells Equal Times.

“You are stuck there and treated as a criminal. It is a prison, a way to dehumanise someone, so that the only option becomes leaving the country. It makes people feel hopeless, and it is so inhumane that some people to commit suicide.”

Currently, the right to seek asylum is under attack the world over, with migration becoming increasingly criminalised at time when the right to sanctuary is needed more than ever due to global conflicts, widespread persecution, growing inequality and the devastation wrought by climate change. From climate change alone, the United Nations predicts at least 250 million people globally will be displaced by 2050.

Aksu now campaigns to end the detention of migrants and asylum seekers. She tells Equal Times that the treatment of migrants has worsened over the years: “Now it is systematised. Inhumane actions are done in a business-style process, where many are rejected, people are deported and may become destitute.”

Jobs have been automated amid austerity budget-cuts, resulting in fewer staff working on immigration at the Home Office. In August 2018, David Wood, the former director-general of immigration enforcement from 2013 to 2015 told the Guardian: “As austerity bit at the Home Office, staff reductions were viewed as necessary in the immigration service to reduce costs. Policies were thus introduced which brought in more automation, thus requiring less staff, and letters sent out may have had little human involvement.”

But just as the UK government’s approach to migration has become more hawkish, citizen resistance to the ‘hostile environment’ and community support to welcome refugees and migrants has grown. Dungavel in Scotland and Yarl’s Wood, near London, have been the focal points of campaigns and protests to shut down detention centres.

There are many migrants support centres nationwide, like the one where Strickland volunteers in London, and there are groups led by migrants that campaign and offer peer support.

“There is the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, the Unity Centre [also in Glasgow], [plus the UK-wide organisations] Right to Remain and Stand Up to Racism,” says Aksu when asked to name some of the organisations active in migrant solidarity. “There are so many different platforms and groups, but we need all the groups and people from different backgrounds coming together.”

As she awaits her sentencing next week, Strickland offers a word of caution; that a hostile environment to migrants and asylum seekers is in fact a hostile environment to all of us: “Anyone that makes the effort to give humanitarian assistance is criminalised as a terrorist.”

She continues: “Anyone can see the state is being authoritarian by charging us with this offence. They must have felt emboldened by the right. What we did was a peaceful action to stop state terrorism. They are really projecting their own actions on us.”

For Strickland resisting the UK’s hostile environment, as part of a global crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers, is key to resisting the rise of fascism. “You do not wake up one day and find yourself in Nazi Germany. It is a process. They come for the migrants first, as they are vulnerable and have less of a voice, then come for wider sections of the society, like the activists, political dissidents, LGBT people...the authorities cast their net wider and wider as they gain confidence. We must fight fascism at the earliest stages. We cannot let this stand.”