The lonely death of Jimmy Mubenga

The man shouting for help was a deportee, a figure hopelessly removed from the mundane normality of international flight. An unbridgeable gulf separated him from the passengers sitting in front of him and across the aisle. Jimmy Mubenga's role was to be a non-person, to disappear from the UK and be forgotten

Jerome Phelps
10 July 2013

This article was first published on October 24th 2010.     

Jimmy Mubenga died on the runway at Heathrow Airport last Tuesday night.  He died a very public death, in the final row of seats of British Airways flight 77 to Luanda.  Witnesses have claimed that he shouted that he could not breathe for over ten minutes, as three large security guards forced his head down into his lap.  No-one helped him.

The interior of a passenger flight is a non-place, familiar to the point of banality.  Most of us have sat many times in seats indistinguishable from Jimmy’s.  We can all imagine ourselves there.  But few of us can imagine Jimmy’s one-way flight.  An unbridgeable gulf separated him from the passengers sitting in front of him and across the aisle.  Some were going on holiday or to visit family; many, like the witness interviewed by the Guardian newspaper, were travelling to work, earning £450 a day in the profitable Angolan oil industry.

Jimmy had no return flight, however.  The man shouting for help was a deportee, a figure hopelessly removed from the mundane normality of international flight.  His role was to be a non-person, to disappear from the UK and be forgotten.

I met Jimmy once, two years ago, during an advice workshop my organisation was holding at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, a short distance from the runway where he was to die.  I don’t remember much of what we talked about.  But I remember him clearly, so much so that that his face came immediately to my mind when I heard his name again last week.  Maybe because of his East London accent, he seemed particularly out of place in an immigration removal centre.  But I also remember that Jimmy was unusually articulate and composed, unbended by the indignity of immigration detention.  I’m sure that he spoke of his family, and it was as though his reality was not here, in this confined and sterile room, but outside, in Ilford, normal human life.  His friend D, who spent many months with him in detention, describes him as a quiet man, someone you wanted to share a room with. 

Jimmy had already been detained for 12 months at that point.  He would be detained for a further two months before being released on bail back to his family, for a time.  We understand that he was to face two further periods of detention in those last two years of his life. 

In the two months we knew Jimmy, we visited him several times, to support him through his ordeal.  His suffering was plain, but he was unfailing polite, generous and concerned about the welfare of his visitor.  He could not understand how his whole life could be taken away from him for one mistake, bitterly regretted.   We know that he was reading extensively, whatever he could find in the Harmondsworth library on religion and ethics.  I imagine him asking himself some of the same questions that preoccupy me now.

So when I think about Jimmy, now that he is dead, I wonder how he came to that lonely seat on flight 77, his head between his knees and his life slipping away.  Objectively I know the answer, in that I have known hundreds or thousands of people who have made that one-way journey.  But, and it bears repeating, Jimmy is dead.  As his friend D said the day after, that isn’t going to change, this injury isn’t going to heal, he will never put this behind him and get on with his life.  We all need to think about how this could happen, and what needs to change.

The first answer has to be the independent inquiry that has been called for by Keith Vaz, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, along with many other MPs and NGOs.  If the restraint techniques used on him are found to have caused his death, no-one will be able to claim that it was an unforeseen tragedy. Medical Justice, National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns and Birnberg Pierce published in 2008 a dossier of 300 allegations of assaults during removal, alleging a pattern of “widespread and seemingly systematic abuse”.  An independent inquiry, led by Dame Nuala O’Loan, found that security contractors involved in deportations had failed to properly manage the use of violent restraint techniques by their staff.

But the questions raised by Jimmy’s death do not stop here.  To do justice to Jimmy’s memory, it is not enough that we make deportations safer and more humane, as we have improved conditions for cattle being transported.  We have to keep in mind Jimmy’s distress, the despair that led this quiet and intelligent man to be restrained by those three security guards. 

It is not a difficult distress to understand.  Jimmy had lived for fourteen years in the UK.  He had had temporary leave to remain, had been working legally, and had started a family.  Each time he was detained, it meant a sudden and brutal separation from his wife and five children, lawfully resident here.  Deportation threatened to make that separation permanent. His children do not even speak Portuguese, so relocation to Angola was unimaginable.  He talked vaguely of Canada, but the prospects seemed impossibly remote. 

Jimmy was to be deported because he had committed a criminal offence.  He had been involved in a fight in a pub, and had been sentenced to two years in prison.  It was his first offence.  After he served his sentence, his life became a nightmare of indefinite immigration detention and increasingly desperate struggles in a legal system that refused to allow him to stay with his family.  He had applied to court to be released on bail seven times when we knew him, and had been refused seven times.  He could not bear seeing his family see him refused release.

So I wonder, and I imagine Jimmy wondering, how it can be proportionate to take away his family and the whole life that he had built here, for that one mistake.  How, had he been British, he would have been given a chance to rebuild his life after he finished his sentence.  How instead, a public authority could think it a good idea to spend so much money and resources on depriving a young family of its father, to send him to a country he had not seen for fourteen years, where he expected persecution for his political activism and for having claimed asylum. 

The answers of course are political.  The last five years have seen increasingly draconian policies on foreign ex-offenders, including automatic deportation and a secret blanket detention policy.  Appeals against deportation routinely take place without any assessment of the risk of re-offending.  Deportees’ right to a family life, and the right of their children to grow up with their parent, are routinely sacrificed to the priorities of immigration control, the need to be seen to be tough on foreign offenders.  These policies make some sense when their targets are non-persons, faceless statistics.

Yet Jimmy was not a faceless non-person.  He was a loving father, a colleague, a person who will be missed.  Similar stories lie behind each of the approximately 3,000 people who will spend tonight in detention, wondering whether they could share Jimmy’s fate.  Many also face deportation to a country that they left decades ago, sometimes as a small child.  Or separation from family, children, loved ones. 

It may be some small comfort for his family that Jimmy’s fate has now attracted the attention in death that he never received in life.  Their courage in speaking in public, in their grief, is the main reason.  We owe it to them to ensure that Jimmy is not once again forgotten.  His death must lead to a more humane and proportionate immigration system that recognises migrants as people, not statistics.

This article was first published October 24th 2010 and is part of openDemocracy 5050's migration debate: People on the Move


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