Britain’s immigration enforcement system continues to inflict horrors and tragedies – and few of the British people are paying any attention. The media continues to ignore the death of Jackie Nanyonjo, whose story makes for horrifying reading.
Jackie was a fighter for herself and for others: a lesbian who escaped from anti-gay persecution and a brutal forced marriage, and a member of the Movement for Justice. In Britain she had been able for the first time to live and love openly as a lesbian; she was much-loved by a wide circle of friends who kept in touch with her after she was deported and who miss her deeply. All of us who knew her, or who didn’t know her personally but are determined to end the regime of racism and anti-immigrant bigotry that is responsible for her death, will fight to win justice for Jackie.
Jackie had been through the mental torture of the immigration and asylum system, with its arbitrary, subjective decisions and impossible demands to ‘prove that you are a lesbian’. UK Border Agency and an Asylum Tribunal had dismissed out-of-hand the ample evidence of friends and her partner that Jackie was a lesbian and rejected her claim for asylum. She was sent to the further mental torture of Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre in November 2012 – a few weeks after detainees had shaken the power of the UKBA in an uprising of mass protest against brutality and injustice led by the Yarl’s Wood Movement for Justice group and Jackie had been part of a solidarity demonstration at the UKBA headquarters in Croydon. Jackie continued her fight in Yarl’s Wood. When the UKBA tried to deport her in December Jackie resisted bravely despite the brutality she suffered at the hands of the ‘escorts’ provided by the contractor, Reliance. She forced them to abandon the attempt and when she got back to Yarl’s Wood she lodged a complaint to the UKBA – a complaint the UKBA rejected.
With all the limited avenues of Britain’s racist immigration laws closed to her and facing deportation to a country where it is a crime to be gay and where the political and religious leaders have whipped up a murderous anti-gay witch-hunt, Jackie’s only option was physical resistance. On 10th January, on Qatar Airways Flight QR76, Jackie fought bravely for her freedom with all the strength she could gather against four Reliance guards. She continued fighting when the guards drew curtains round their end of the plane to hide their crimes. She struggled for as long as she could until, beaten up, half strangled and bent double, she was overcome by the pain in her chest and neck and was unable to breathe.
When Jackie arrived at Entebbe Airport the ‘escort’ party handed her over to the Ugandan authorities, who held her for many more hours without any medical attention. When family members finally met her, long after the flight had landed, Jackie was in terrible pain and vomiting blood; they rushed her to a clinic, but in a country with widespread poverty and limited medical facilities they were unable to get the medical attention Jackie needed. Since Jackie was in hiding as a known lesbian, protected by relatives, every trip to a doctor or hospital involved a risk to her life and to the safety of her family. They were condemned to watch the agonising decline of Jackie’s health and strength over the next two months.
And Jackie Nanyonjo is not the only asylum-seeker to have been treated in this way. People who have faced unimaginable horrors, such as sexual violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking and domestic abuse, are regularly held in immigration detention on the Detained Fast Track, and are given little time and few resources to prepare their asylum claims. One experienced immigration lawyer, S Chelvan, says that gay and bisexual asylum-seekers who are fleeing violent homophobic persecution are often put under pressure by Home Office officials to “prove” that they are telling the truth about their sexuality. Many are disbelieved. Many spend months held against their will in immigration detention facilities, punished for seeking refuge in this country. Many face removal to dangerous parts of the world.
The Yarl’s Wood Movement for Justice was founded by a group of lesbian women held in inhuman conditions at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. Their manifesto puts it in stark terms: “the entire immigration system is racist, homophobic, sexist and rotten to the core”. It’s time we remembered that the dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians like Theresa May, and of journalists like Paul Dacre and Richard Littlejohn, has horrifying and tragic consequences for some of the most marginalized people in our society. And it’s time we listened to the voices of the people who suffer as a result of Britain’s immigration laws.