The central irony of the Brexit fiasco is that a movement with the sole purpose of allowing us to “take control” has turned us into human driftwood on the riptide of history. Now, as we hurtle towards a no-deal exit, those in charge would rather stockpile life-jackets than pull us out of the water.
A French newspaper recently ran the headline Suicide d’Une Nation on a comment piece about our plight, but that implies some element of choice. Instead, the legacy of the past two years has been to strip us of agency. Hard facts and revelations of cheating are no match for the Leave camp’s money and monomania. Flailing about and out of our depth, we are not waving, but drowning.
The sense of being propelled by outside forces is not confined to the UK; it is mirrored in the US, now transformed into an Alice In Wonderland world where you can make words mean different things and nothing is what it is because everything is what it isn’t. There, and across the West, the rise of the right can seem inexorable. With so many politicians and hate groups being given platforms to spread their anti-immigrant message, what, realistically, can any of us do to counter them?
This is why student activist Elin Ersson’s act of defiance on the flight from Gothenburg to Turkey last week exercised such a strong grip on the public imagination. She didn’t cut some heroic figure; she was tearful and at the end of her tether like the rest of us. Yet, in refusing to sit down until the 50-year-old asylum seeker facing deportation to Afghanistan was allowed to disembark, she showed that – despite everything – it is still possible to make a difference, and in doing so, to preserve your sense of self.
Ersson may not have prevented the deportation, but she drew attention to Sweden’s treatment of asylum seekers and forced fellow passengers to reflect that there are those for whom boarding a plane is not a precursor to fun in the sun, but the start of a journey that may end in death.
She also raised awareness of the threat posed by the populist anti-immigration Sweden Democrats in the forthcoming general election and the way the current government is toughening up its act to try to stop their rivals gaining ground.
Ersson’s protest came in a week when the UK’s iniquitous attitude towards “foreigners” – be they asylum seekers, economic migrants or, indeed, artists invited to perform in music festivals – was also on display. Much focus has rightly been given to US President Donald Trump’s (now-defunct) policy of separating the children of immigrants from their parents at the Mexican border; but our own handling of those suspected of being “illegal” is also little short of scandalous.
We are, for example, the only country in the EU without a statutory time limit for detention of immigrants. Most are locked up for at least two months and some for more than two years. The Red Cross has called for a 28-day limit, and a greater use of community-based alternatives.
Last week, a report by former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw – who had previously called for a presumption against detention for vulnerable people, including victims of rape and sexual violence – found thousands were still being held in “unacceptable” conditions in immigration detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire and Dungavel in South Lanarkshire.
Though the total number of people detained in a year had gone down from 30,000 to 28,000 since Shaw’s first review, the number locked up for more than six months had increased. And despite the government introducing an “adults at risk” policy, managers at each of the centres told Shaw the number of vulnerable people in their care remained the same.
In the wake of Shaw’s latest review, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made the right noises; he promised to tackle overcrowding and pilot an automatic bail hearing at two months. What is needed, however, is an immediate end to indefinite detention, and on this he was disappointingly vague.
Instead of pressing ahead, he drew attention to a section of the report where Shaw described the debate on indefinite detention time limits as based more on “slogans than evidence”. Was this him preparing the ground to commission more research which would allow him to kick a firm commitment into the long grass?
Meanwhile, the list of people wrongly targeted as a result of the hostile environment policy grows: in the past few months alone, they have included 10-year-old orphan Giorgi Kakava, who was threatened with deportation to Georgia, and Solomon Getenet Yitbarek. Yitbarek, 27, had already been deported to Ethiopia, where his father and brother were tortured and later died, when a Scottish judge ruled the Home Office had acted unlawfully and that he should be brought back to the UK.
The good news is that some of these injustices are being successfully challenged, not only by MPs, MSPs, lawyers and journalists, but by ordinary people willing to take a stand. Indeed, far from collapsing in the face of widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, the kind of popular backlash typified by the Glasgow Girls – a group of school pupils who rallied to the defence of one of their friends – seems to be gathering momentum, particularly in the wake of Windrush. After Ersson’s self-filmed footage went viral, it emerged pilots in Germany had stopped 222 deportations simply by refusing to fly with asylum seekers on board; what individually can be dismissed as futile, cumulatively forms an effective resistance.
So a petition and campaign by groups including Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants led Virgin Airlines, which sponsors London Pride, to refuse to carry deportees; and it may not be long before fellow sponsor British Airways follows suit.
Of course, as individuals there are risks attached: Ersson won support from the crew who agreed the man should be taken off the flight, but she could have been arrested and charged. That’s what happened to 17 protesters at Stansted who locked themselves to the wheel of a plane to stop 50 people being deported to Ghana and who face trial next month for obstruction and trespass.
Nor do such acts necessarily prevent governments from pursuing their policies; if deportations on scheduled flights are attracting too much attention, then the Home Office can (and does) simply charter a plane and carry them out under cover of darkness. Similarly, if it is reluctant to end indefinite detention, or believes the move will be blocked by backbenchers, then it will find some excuse not to include a time limit in the forthcoming Immigration Bill.
In the absence of immigration being devolved to Holyrood, however, individual revolts – big or small – are vital. They alter the tone of the national conversation; they prevent the mistreatment of asylum seekers from becoming normalised and they demonstrate that there is a significant group of people who will not capitulate to the Brexiteers and Trumpists, no matter how entrenched their privilege or how inexorable their rise. As we are sucked ever closer into the vortex, flexing what little muscle we have left might just keep us afloat.