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‘They want to take your soul’: The race to stop Priti Patel’s Jamaica deportation flight

Long read: The story of two families and their fight to stay together in the face of the hostile environment

Sitting in his dressing gown, Mark Burkett grapples with a Nokia-sized box strapped around his ankle. He has to plug this GPS tracker into the mains to charge for an hour a day so immigration knows where he is at all times.

Mark was convicted of selling drugs and served two years in prison. He was released in 2015. Because he’s a Jamaican national, the past six years have been spent battling the Home Office. 

Sitting with Angela, his wife, in the living room of their house in Birmingham, it’s clear that navigating the system has taken its toll on Mark.

“Yes, I do the crime, but this is more than double punishment,” he says. “They want to take the soul from out of you. They want to drain you out. Everyone, not just me.” 

In October, Mark was detained and told he would be put on a flight to Jamaica.

The Home Office’s policy of running charter flights as a way of deporting criminals is expensive and controversial. With the Nationality and Borders Bill passing through parliament, activists are concerned the government will soon have greater powers to detain and deport people.

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Yet consecutive charter flights to Jamaica have had fewer and fewer passengers on board: 17, 13 and then seven.

The latest in that series, Mark’s flight was supposed to have 50 people on board. Many of those had been in the UK since they were children or had no criminal convictions – the first time this had been attempted since the Windrush scandal.

In the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 10 November, an Airbus A350-900 – capacity 432 – took off from Birmingham airport to Jamaica with just four passengers on board. Mark was one of those who had been given a reprieve from the flight. His relief is evident and unsurprising but his future, and that of his family, is far from clear.

After the Airbus left, Priti Patel expressed dismay that she had not been able to deport hardened criminals, thanks to the efforts of last-minute legal challenges. 

The flight’s reduced passenger manifest was no accident: in the days and weeks leading up to the flight, activists, lawyers, politicians, and families fought to get those in line for deportation off the flight. This is the story of how that coalition embarrassed Priti Patel. It is also the story of the human cost of deportation.

‘Mr Burkett, your time has come’

It was a Tuesday morning when Mark went to sign on with immigration at Sandford House in Solihull. The three-storey Home Office immigration reporting centre, with its drab brick, yellowing PVC, and CCTV cameras is an architectural carbuncle that’d fit perfectly in any provincial English business park.

Mark arrived in the UK as a 25-year-old in 2001. He met Angela shortly after and the couple have two children together, including Brandon, who has just turned 18 but has severe learning difficulties, requiring Mark to act as a carer.

Jamaica deportation flight
Mark and Angela Burkett with son Brandon. Image: Supplied

He had been granted indefinite leave to remain, but this was revoked when he spent two years in prison for selling class A drugs. In prison, Mark was handed deportation papers – putting him on notice that the government wanted to send him back to Jamaica.

Signing on is a stressful process, but on that day – October 19 – Mark went inside the building as he’s had to do every month since his release from prison in 2015.

On that Tuesday morning, he was told: “Mr Burkett, your time’s come.”

This wasn’t his first time being detained by immigration – in 2019 he had avoided deportation on a charter flight that was cancelled because of Windrush.

In total, since April 2020, the government has run 75 charter flights to deport people to countries including Nigeria, Romania, Bulgaria, and Jamaica. But since the Windrush scandal, particular attention has been paid to those leaving to Jamaica.

From Sandford House Mark was taken to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. 

It wasn’t until a court hearing on October 26 – after a week in Colnbrook – that Mark knew for certain what was happening. As his solicitor applied for Mark’s bail, with a motion asking immigration to re-examine his case, the Home Office revealed that Mark had been detained for an upcoming charter flight.

The process brought back Angela’s memories of a near-identical hearing two years ago. “Our kids were in court. I can’t even tell you. Even the solicitor was crying. All of us was, my mum was there. We thought that was it,” she says.

“I was told, then, to go and take the kids to say goodbye to him. I took them on a Sunday down to Oxford and we thought that’d be the last time we were seeing Mark. It was heartbreaking.”

This time around Angela attended via Zoom. Mark was granted bail at the hearing. Eager to get the word out, Angela phoned Karen Doyle, an activist with a group called Movement for Justice. The pair began to piece together what was happening.

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‘I’ve been fighting them since 2011 to stay in the country’

Two days later, on Thursday 28 November, as Mark was released from Colnbrook, Sam* went to sign on with immigration at Eaton House in Hounslow.

Now 33, Sam came to the UK from Jamaica when he was 11. He lives in London with his wife, who he’s been with for 16 years, and his 16-year-old son. He’s been to prison twice for supplying class As – once from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2016 to 2019.

It’s something he says he was forced into – a claim he and his solicitors have lodged a human trafficking case on the basis of. This is the reason his real name is not used in this story. 

But on that Thursday morning, Sam’s wife drove him to Eaton House on their way to go food shopping and sat in the car while he went inside to sign on.

Officials had taken photos of him on a previous trip to sign on, which raised his suspicion. Friends who he asked told him they reckoned the Home Office might be preparing to detain him. “I’ve been fighting them since 2011 to stay in the country,” he said.

When he got inside, he realised something was different. “The door they told me to come through, I heard that people who go through there don’t normally come back out. So I knew there was something wrong,” he says.

‘What you send me back to Jamaica to do? Nothing. Nowhere to go’

Built next to Heathrow airport in 2004, Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre looks almost like an early-2000s university halls of residence. Yet it is built to the standards of a high-security prison and houses an all-male population, all of whom have been detained for deportation.

Its Wikipedia page cheerily describes how the centre “offers detainees a range of activities whilst they are waiting for deportation including a library, multi-faith worship facilities, education provision, gym and sports activities, and a shop.”

This is a world away from how Sam describes it. “The cell was filthy, dirty. It was snot all over the wall. The toilet was so dirty I couldn’t even use the toilet,” he says. He had to rub oranges on the toilet to get rid of the smell, and was feeling “horrible, couldn’t sleep, nervous, feeling suicidal.”

Alongside maintaining hope he wouldn’t be sent to the country he’d not seen since childhood, Sam’s thoughts turned to the food shop with his wife that he’d missed. Going back to Jamaica terrified him. “Because of my accent as well and the way I dress, people will know that I’m not from there and I’m going to be a target,” he says.

In his cell, he reflected on his struggle with immigration, which had been going on since 2011, and wrapped itself around nearly every aspect of his day-to-day life. “The immigration said I’m not allowed to work and I’m not allowed to do studying either,” Sam explains.

“My son is 16 and I want to provide for him and there’s nothing I can really do. My wife is paying all the bills. It’s difficult.”

Eventually, he was handed an innocuous-looking piece of A4 paper – his ticket for the upcoming flight. It’s technically called a removal direction.

“I took it like a man because I had faith I wasn’t going anywhere. I was thinking if they ever send me back to Jamaica I might as well kill myself in there. I told him that I’m gonna kill myself in there,” he says.

“What you send me back to Jamaica to do? Nothing. Nowhere to go, I don’t know anyone. I’m going to end up on the streets. I’m not gonna be able to get my medication and I really really depend on my medication.”

This is when Sam called Karen from Movement for Justice. She put him in touch with solicitors at Duncan Lewis. Sam’s existing solicitors, who he was paying, weren’t representing him properly.

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‘My heart bleeds for those who don’t have access to the services’

Access to proper legal representation is a major challenge for people facing deportation. In conversations with campaigners, an experienced solicitor and a member of parliament, this comes up again and again. Often, it is only when people are in detention centres, days away from a flight, that they manage to get a solicitor, and only then that the details of their case are properly examined.

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy says: “It’s simply because a lot of steps are missed that people are able to fight quite successful legal challenges.

“My heart bleeds for those who don’t have access to these services, because we know as campaigners and members of parliament that there are people that we miss. And we know there are people that we miss because of what happened to the Windrush generation.”

Jamie Bell, a solicitor with Duncan Lewis, reckons he’s worked on 10 charter flights since 2016, by his best count. Duncan Lewis represented over a dozen people due to be on this flight. 

He says there’s a haste about the detentions, and the mass releases show how indiscriminate this is. “We know for a fact because a lot of clients who’ve gone on to get leave to remain have been removed from charter flights,” he says.

“It’s only through this last minute hectic intervention that their legitimate cases were able to be brought to the attention of the home office and the courts.”

Being detained is chaotic, stressful, and marked by a lack of information. In the midst of this, the work of representing those inside is taken up by a coalition of groups. Anger at the tactics, as well as the human impact of the Home Office’s actions, compel people to help.

Because of the lack of information, the task is often as basic as putting those inside detention centres in touch with people who can help them.

People like Ruudi, who works with Allies for Justice, have been on flights before. “I know what it feels like to be sat on the plane. Last minute they call your seat number and say you’re going back,” he says.

Despite that, he still makes himself available for people in detention centres to call up, and directs them to help. He pushes through because he doesn’t want people to go through what he’s been through.

Another group, Detention Action, helps detainees secure solicitors, as well as offering  practical and emotional support. Through this work, they’ve witnessed how the system works.

And every conversation mentions Karen, who works with Movement for Justice. She serves as a hub, putting everyone in touch with each other and helping people sort their cases out. In the process, through calls like the one with Angela, she also builds a picture of what is happening.

‘Sometimes they’re not going to fight you on this. They know they’re wrong’

By the start of November, word had gotten out about the flight. It was due to take off on Tuesday November 10. Again, campaigners said information about the flights is limited.

Jamie’s firm used to know the exact time and location of flights, but not any more. Instead, they find out “a lot through rumours and whispers, or because a big group of certain nationalities are picked up.”

On Thursday November 4, a group of 15 or so protesters gathered on a street corner near Hyde Park, outside the Jamaican High Commission.

It was the Thursday before the flight was due to take off, and Movement for Justice had by then established 50 people were due to be deported. Alongside Colnbrook, where Mark and Sam were detained, people are being held in Yarl’s Wood, Brook House, and Harmondsworth detention centres.

Among the crowd were family members of those in the centres, making pleas to the Jamaican government not to accept the flight. Officials inside the building, a red-bricked house near the Victoria and Albert museum, stared out as protesters chanted “shame on you”.

Inside Colnbrook, Sam and 15 other detainees spoke down a phone pressed against Karen’s megaphone, chanting for their freedom as the crowd in central London joined in.

It also emerged that, unlike Mark and Sam, people without criminal convictions were in line to be deported – the first time this had been attempted since the Windrush scandal. Media attention picked up. This is when the tide started to turn.

It is not just lawyers and campaigners who have to rely on informal channels to find out about the flight. Two of Ribeiro-Addy’s constituents, neither of whom have criminal convictions, were due to be deported – a fact she only discovered after Karen told her about the flight.

Using a direct Home Office line each MP has, she wrote to Priti Patel to raise the case. The gist of the letter was: “They have no criminal convictions, they have a human rights claim to stay here, what the hell are you doing?”

Shortly after the protest on Thursday night, word emerged that her constituents had been taken off the flight. “Sometimes they say they’re not going to fight you on this. They know they’re wrong,” she says.

As Sam was sleeping in his cell on the Sunday before the flight, his phone rang. It was his solicitor, telling him his ticket was cancelled because of the human trafficking details of his case. He wouldn’t be on the flight.

There’s long been a Covid problem in Colnbrook, which has been the basis of Duncan Lewis’s work to grant a stay to its clients. By the Monday the trickle of people being granted a reprieve turned into a flood. Around a dozen of Duncan Lewis’s clients were released.

The flight leaves

The flight was scheduled to leave on Tuesday night. Even as a bus arrived to take detainees to the airport, there were still people with cases pending, unsure of their fate.

Activists calling themselves Stop the Plane lay in the road in front of Brook House, locking their arms inside plastic tubes and blocking the van. A number of the Stop the Plane protesters were taken into custody overnight, but the delay to the van’s journey bought those on board with pending cases valuable minutes.

At 01.30 on Wednesday morning, the flight left from Birmingham airport with one voluntary removal and three forced removals on board. Fifty people, by Movement for Justice’s estimate, were meant to be on it. 

In total, 33 people were taken off because of legal challenges – and 13 of these were lodged only in the last 24 hours before take-off. But the victory for the activists was tempered. 

The morning after the flight, Priti Patel released a statement, her frustration evident: “I make no apology for removing foreign national offenders who have committed crimes which will have had a devastating impact on their victims.

“The people removed to Jamaica today are convicted criminals who have been found guilty of a range of serious offences. They have no place in our society. It is absolutely galling that, yet again, last-minute legal claims have stopped the removal of 33 people, including those guilty of abhorrent crimes such as murder and child sexual offences.”

For those who were meant to be on the flight, there are mixed emotions. Sam says:  “It’s horrible, man, knowing that there’s people on that flight. I know how they feel and I know what they’re going through.”

And even though people like Mark and Sam were not on the flight, it is not the end for them. Jamie says: “Anyone taken off a flight at any point, their case won’t be resolved. They’ll always have more to do. There’s a lot of hard work that comes afterwards.”

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‘They’re playing with everyone until we give up’

Sam wasn’t released until a few days later.  “I came home and I surprised my wife and she was happy. I didn’t tell anyone I was getting released.” She knew he wasn’t on the flight but not when he’d be released.” But since then he’s had dreams. The impact of his experience is profound, but it was only the latest, most acute episode in something that’s dominated his life for the past decade.

“I’ve been going through immigration since 2011 and it’s 2021 now. It’s very very stressful. There’s lots of times where I feel, I was forced to sell drugs and I’m being forced out of the country,” he said.

When we speak, he is waiting to have his human trafficking application fully considered. But control of his destiny is not his. “All my life I feel like people have told me what to do, and no one ever asked me what do I want. My life is not really my life. Nuff times I’ve considered killing myself. But where I’ve grown up without a dad, I don’t want my son to grow up without a dad.”

This is not a feeling that goes away. Battling against the limitless resources of a government wears him down: “That kind of feeling inside, it’s like you’ve got some kind of illness and you’re just waiting to die. That’s how it feels.”

Mark also feels the authorities are toying with him. His pre-action protocol was rejected after his release, and he feels he is waiting to be detained again.

“They know what they’re doing – they play games. They’re just playing with everyone until we give up. They have the money to do whatever they want,” he says.

And sat next to him, Angela says the uncertainty over what might happen next wears the whole family down: “He’s been to prison and he’s paid for the crime and been rehabilitated. Now they’re punishing him again, but not only that they’re punishing me and the children.”

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