The deportation of all foreign criminals is the latest populist campaign of the right-wing press.
The Mail and the Telegraph have long since campaigned against the Human Rights Act. Their long-running campaign to prevent prisoners born outside the UK from relying on their rights to family and private life to avoid deportation once released, is bearing fruit – even though it’s based on recycled lies, like the story of the Bolivian spared deportation because of his pet cat. Under the banner ‘End the human rights farce’, the Sunday Telegraph reported on 12 June that ‘a total of 102 people defeated the Home Secretary in the courts on family rights grounds, including violent criminals and illegal immigrants who had no other right to be in the country.' The Mail took up the baton, giving the campaign its full-blooded support, in stories the following week. Both papers relied on the ‘pet cat’ story, which the man’s solicitors have confirmed was untrue. (It was his long-term relationship with a British woman, not the cat, which made his deportation disproportionate; the reference to the cat was a joke by the immigration judge, which backfired.)
But the right-wing press are feeding public hysteria about foreign criminals and creating a climate where judges may fear to give effect to migrants’ human rights because of the inevitable right-wing backlash. This is reflected in a recent decision of the Court of Appeal. Forty-seven-year-old Bangladeshi RU, who came to the UK in 1976, aged fourteen, to join his parents, went to school here, got married, ran a business in Belfast, had a daughter, and was a respected member of the community. But in 1999, following the breakdown of his marriage, he was sentenced to fifteen years for complicity in a serious attack on his brother-in-law. In 2009 he was released on parole, being considered low risk in terms of reoffending. But the Home Office issued a deportation notice. His appeal to the Tribunal was successful, the immigration judge deciding that the ties he had built up during his thirty-four years here, and the strong relationships with family in the UK, outweighed the public interest in deporting him. The Home Office appealed, arguing that his deportation was necessary to deter others and to maintain confidence in the immigration system. The argument succeeded before the Upper Tribunal, and in June the Court of Appeal upheld its decision. It was unimportant, said the Court, that RU himself would not reoffend and was not a danger to anyone, or that his deportation would not deter anyone from committing a crime; what was important was Parliament’s declaration in the 2007 UK Borders Act that deportation of foreign criminals is in the public interest.
Ten years ago, the deportation of those like RU who had lived in the UK for most of their lives was unthinkable. Not too long ago, in 1993, in the European Court of Human Rights, Judge Schermers doubted ‘whether modern international law permits a state which has educated children of admitted aliens to expel those children when they become a burden’. Well before the Human Rights Act was passed in 1998, judges deciding whether to deport criminals and overstayers weighed a large number of factors – the length of time spent in the country, the ties they had built up, including family and other ties, their character, conduct and employment record, the nature of the offence(s), compassionate circumstances such as the effect of their deportation on others – to decide if the public interest required their deportation. But the media frenzy in 2006 about the release of foreign prisoners without considering deportation, which forced Charles Clarke’s resignation as Home Secretary, succeeded in getting the law changed to do away with the judicial balancing of factors for and against deportation. From 2007, deportation became mandatory for anyone sentenced to a year or more in prison, unless the Refugee Convention or the Human Rights Convention made their deportation unlawful. The Tory Right and its press, having achieved this narrowing of the grounds for avoiding the double punishment of deportation, now seek to remove the last remaining obstacle to getting rid of all foreign offenders – international human rights law.
One of those whose deportation the Mail demanded was MK, a Gambian who had lived in the UK since the age of three, with a son born here and no relatives or connections in the Gambia. The judges who decided in 2010 that MK should not be deported took issue with the Home Office description of him as a foreign criminal – ‘He’s a home-grown criminal’, they pointed out. But to the tabloids, criminals who are not British can never be ‘home-grown’. By attacking judges who uphold rights to family and private life in cases such as MK’s, they seek to create a new consensus in which ‘human rights’ has the same derogatory and fearful connotations as ‘asylum seeker’. Immigrants don’t have human rights, or at least only when they behave themselves, we’re ceaselessly told – and the case of RU epitomises this thinking.