Myrna Simpson, mother of Joy Gardner, at a protest in 1995. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jimmy Mubenga: What kind of society can treat the death of an immigrant so casually?

Disrespected by the state, and demonised by the press - the most pressing "fears about migration" are those that belong to migrants.

Last month, an inquest jury of seven men and three women returned a majority verdict that Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed during a deportation. Yesterday the coroner published a report into the ease with which Mubenga’s life was taken by the state and its contractors.

What kind of society can treat the death of an immigrant so casually? The same one that produced the van driven through London's black and minority ethnic communities last week, inscribed with the slogan "go home".

The van was not the latest project of the English Defence League, or a far right splinter group, but a pilot campaign by the Home Office operating under the mandate of Parliament. The government had chosen to restore a chant made infamous by the National Front. A chant that greeted my grandparents and a generation of post-war British migrants from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. A chant that was often accompanied by violence. The Home Office put that chant at the heart of a flagship campaign.

The timing was particularly insensitive: it was near the 20th anniversary of the death of Joy Gardner, a 40 year-old Caribbean mother killed in front of her five year-old son while the police attempted to deport her. It added to the feeling that Mubenga and Gardner’s deaths were not individual accidents, but the inevitable result of attitudes towards migrant citizenship in "modern" Britain. The coroner looking into the Mubenga case found "pervasive" racist attitudes among deportation guards in the same way that the Macpherson report found "institutional racism" in the police. 

The next question is this: why would G4S guards respect a migrant's life, when the message our political class has sent out is that migrant lives have no value in Britain - unless they are generating revenue for the Treasury?

The story of how Mubenga's wife became a widow, and his five children, all British born citizens - the youngest just three years old - lost their dad should make us ask why the state was forcibly removing a father from his family.

Commentators routinely complain about the absence of black fathers - most recently Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s disastrous piece of urban tourism in the Mail - but are silent on how the right to family life of black and minority ethnic Britons is restricted.

The Conservatives present immigration only as a problem and have pledged to cut net migration by more than 50 per cent in five years. Labour, meanwhile, cannot stop apologising for "getting it wrong on immigration". But neither party appears to be talking about American financiers, western Europeans or Britain’s Australian and Canadian cousins when they talk about problem migrants.

Some tabloids, meanwhile, routinely run headlines scapegoating migration as an existential threat to core parts of our welfare state - the NHS and our housing stock. Yet the papers rarely cover the frequency of violence against migrants when restrained and detained, or the trauma to their (often British-born) children. Migrants' own humanity is systematically obscured. 

A study by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD) published in April 2013 found that children who had been split from their parents who were in detention experienced weight loss, nightmares, insomnia, frequent crying and isolation. Each of these symptoms indicate a crisis of mental health. Over the past months a growing number of detained asylum seekers have starved themselves.

And for black and minority ethnic Britons, the suspicion does not end with a passport and a stamp of Britishness. Suggestions that the border police were targeting non-white people at Kensal Green station have alarmed many. Concerns over stop and search are already well known. The result is that BME Britons can feel like they only have the status of "visitors", not citizens.

Anti-racism has become a dead dogma. The average Briton knows racism is wrong but cannot recognise it in practice, even when the government borrows a slogan that was once enforced on signs with "no dogs, no blacks, no Irish". A recent poll by YouGov found that 61 per cent of people did not find the "Go Home" van to be racist.

That poll result shows that, although Doreen Lawrence has been made a baroness for fighting racism, Britain understands the subject less and less. It is not that the majority of the public want to be racist - they don't - they simply just do not get it.

After the death of Jimmy Mubenga, the head of immigration enforcement at the Home Office, David Wood, "apologised" in these words: "I am willing to apologise to the extent that it was our responsibility." More absurd than the shallowness of his apology was that Wood was apologising for doing his job. Crudely speaking, the drive to create a "hostile environment for migrants" is masterminded by our government. Sections of the press have played their part too. 

For Jimmy Mubenga, Joy Gardner and the many others treated violently by the state, justice will only be served by reform. That starts with the recognition that the "fears about migration" which may be most pressing are those that belong to the migrant.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

0800 7318496