Jimmy Mubenga: coroner finds "pervasive racism" among G4S guards

It's vital to draw the link between tragedies like the death of Mubenga and the way immigrants are discussed in the media and politics. Language helps create the climate in which abuses go unpunished.

Jimmy Mubenga
Jimmy Mubenga

Last month, an inquest jury decided that the Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed after being restrained by three G4S security guards on a plane at Heathrow airport. Today, the coroner who led the inquest has published a damning report with wider implications about the way people are deported from the UK.

The Guardian has neatly summarised the concerns raised by the coroner, Karon Monaghan, in her 30-page "rule 43 report":

• A system of payment that rewards guards if they can keep a detainee quiet until the aircraft takes off;

• Evidence of "pervasive racism" among G4S detention custody officers who were tasked with removing detainees;

• Fears that these racist attitudes – and "loutish, laddish behaviour … Inappropriate language, and peer pressure" – are still common among escort guards today;

• Lack of "scenario specific" training for those tasked with trying to restrain people on aircrafts;

• Evidence of the use of dangerous restraint techniques such as "carpet karaoke" where detainees' heads are forced downwards to prevent them upsetting the passengers or causing the captain to abort the removal

• and concern that many guards were not officially accredited to carry out removals – meaning they would have been acting illegally.

The report makes clear that Mubenga's death was not simply the result of a few "bad apples" among guards - it suggests the whole system is rotten, as New Statesman journalists have previously argued. Last July, Samira Shackle wrote:

While Mubenga’s death was an extreme example, abuses during deportation are commonplace. Medical Justice published a report in 2008 that outlined nearly 300 allegations of such assaults. These included 42 deportees who complained of having their breathing restricted, several instances of neck injuries from having their heads pushed forward between their knees, and a punctured lung. In this context, it was merely a matter of time before somebody died.

Last month, Alan White set Mubenga's death in the wider context of using private contractors like G4S to provide public services:

This is a system failure as much as it is a company’s. We’re now in a position whereby ministers feel they have to make outsourcing work. These companies are too big to fail: there’s no competition and they’re squeezing other providers out of the market. So we keep rewarding failure because we can’t afford not to. The Government is legally bound to huge contracts it can’t abandon and it won’t offer them elsewhere even if it could because it lacks the commissioning expertise and confidence to do so.

I would add one further point: it's also vital to draw the link between tragedies like the death of Mubenga and the way immigrants are discussed in the media and politics. We've seen a row develop in recent weeks over Home Office publicity stunts - the billboard van telling illegal immigrants to "Go Home", and the live tweeting of the arrest of suspected irregular migrants; arrests in which some have claimed racial profiling was at work. But if the style of delivery is new, the attitudes are not. Such things are not just distasteful, but damaging.

Advocates of anti-immigrant policies will deny that their ideas, and their language, have anything to do with this sort of tragedy. But how we talk about it matters. Language helps create the climate in which abuses go unpunished - unlooked for, even, except when the guards go "too far" and end up killing a man. If you start thinking of human beings as "illegals", then don't be surprised at the result when those humans are treated as unwanted waste.

In recent years we have been repeatedly told by politicians that we need to talk about immigration. Today's report is evidence that we also need a conversation about racism.