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6 August 2013updated 17 Dec 2014 11:21am

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.

By Symeon Brown

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?

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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.