From the Windrush scandal which highlighted the state of British immigration policies, to the more recent criminalisation of the Stansted 15, the campaign to fight for migrants and those who are deemed ‘illegal’ or ‘violent’ by the state has become an increasingly important issue for anyone who envisions a different kind of future, a future of no borders and an end to the racist capitalist system in which we live.
With these recent events in mind, I interviewed Luke De Noronha about his project Deportation Discs. We spoke about the importance of amplifying the voices of those facing deportation, as well as those already deported, and how we must continue to mobilise and support detainees and deported persons.
Edna Mohamed: To begin with, can you tell me a bit about Deportation Discs and what inspired you to create this project?
Luke De Noronha: For the last few years, I’ve been doing research on deportation, spending lots of time with people who have been deported from the UK to Jamaica, focusing on those who spent most of their lives in the UK, who moved here as children, and who were then sent to Jamaica following an interaction with the criminal justice system. Deportation Discs is part of a larger project which attempts to ‘bear witness’ to this most extraordinary and extreme form of state violence.
The idea for Deportation Discs came from Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, but speaks to deported persons. They get to tell their stories with a soundtrack. It’s kind of jarring, because the exile is real rather than imagined. And their stories are not about fame and celebrity, but about criminalisation, immigration control and family separation. These are not the kinds of people we normally tune into, definitely not on Radio 4. But their music choices are all the better for it!
EM: It feels in popular discourse that those who have been deported are often presented as existing outside of us. They are statistics or figures, demonised and othered in order to legitimise the violence that they have to go through. I wanted to ask about why you’ve chosen music as a way to get those who have been deported to tell their stories.
LDN: The wider project is an attempt to humanise and provide vivid portraits of people who are demonised in the ways you describe. So this is an extension of that. I am also trying to capture the human aspect through my writing, but there’s something much more powerful about the voice and the soundtrack. When you first listen to Deportation Discs you hear the voices of Chris and Denico. You can hear their formative years in England in their accents. And that’s important. I also think their choice of songs tells us so much. They both explain their choices in a very reflective and intelligent way – I suppose because they’ve thought about the turning points in their lives so many times. Music makes us feel things in ways that exceed our language. We feel what it must mean to be separated from loved ones, to lack the passport for the country you know best, to be incarcerated, and to struggle in isolation in Jamaica, with no way home. The music frames and deepens their stories.
EM: I wanted to pick up on this idea of home and the ways we create these spaces of belonging if we’re always viewed as an outsider. I think a lot of what both Chris and Denico have to unpack is this idea of being told to ‘reintegrate’ into a community they don’t actually know. How do you understand the idea of home and of being ‘untethered.’
LDN: I think this idea of ‘integration’ is really important. Chris and Denico – and others like them – were deported because, apparently, they failed to integrate in Britain. But what does that mean? The Home Office said that their criminality proved their ‘lack of social and cultural integration.’ But how do we determine which Britain they should be integrating into? If you are poor and cannot work and so decide to sell drugs, does that mean you are not integrated? What about people who go to Eton, are they integrated? Certainly not with most of us.
My point is that Chris and Denico were embedded in the places where they were living. They were at home in the UK. But being at home and being integrated is not the same thing. Integration implies a whole set of values about what ‘good citizens’ should be doing – abiding by the law, paying taxes, speaking English, raising nuclear families – and so integration is inherently exclusionary. Integration regulates and polices the borders of the nation, and by doing so it makes people homeless.
Of course, when it comes to deporting people back to Jamaica, suddenly the bar for ‘integration’ becomes much lower. The Home Office said Chris and Denico could easily ‘reintegrate,’ even though they had not been there since they were children and all their immediate family lived in the UK. The Home Office said the national language of Jamaica is English (which is untrue), and that there were support services available on return (which is over-exaggerated to the point of untrue). So what happens is that people are dropped at the airport and left to fend for themselves. The routine consequences of deportation are intense poverty, mental illness, isolation and homelessness. Dealing with this takes immense strength, and some people can’t manage.
EM: There’s a particular part in your more recent episode with Chris where he explains how those deported are their own class. He says ‘there are Jamaicans, foreigners and deportees.’ Can you speak a little about this distinction that he makes?
LDN: I think Chris is pointing to something important here. It is estimated that over 10% of people who are street homeless in Jamaica are ‘deportees’. If you walk around in downtown Kingston, especially on King St, you will hear North American accents among the people living on the streets. It’s quite striking. Also, around 1% of the Jamaican population are people who were deported in the last two decades, and so we can estimate that around 3-5% of men between the ages of 20 and 60 are probably ‘deportees’. This is not an insignificant number. Chris is saying that this group, deported people, experience certain things in different ways – family tensions, unemployment, social stigma – and so they might, therefore, constitute a class.
I take Chris’ point but I am wary of using the concept of class in this context. I think there are some distinct patterns among and problems faced by deported persons, but they are not a distinct class. In my experience, most deported persons become part of the urban poor on their return. They experience the same social insecurities as the urban poor, and so it might not be accurate to isolate ‘deportees’ as a particular class in Jamaica.
However, it is interesting that Chris labels ‘foreigners’ a class in Jamaica. There’s something in that. It is hard not to see tourism in Jamaica, and across the Caribbean, in the afterlife of slavery and empire. Tourists travel for honeymoons and luxury cruises in paradise, while Jamaicans cannot get visas to escape their poverty and limited life chances. Foreigners consume the sun, sea, sand (and sex), and then leave, while people like Chris and Denico connect with their children and partners via WhatsApp from East Kingston’s ‘garrison towns’. Tourism in the Caribbean shines a light on the profound inequalities which determine who can move and how in this grossly unequal (colonially ordered) world. So, I think Chris is on to something when he refers to foreigners as a class in Jamaica.
EM: Whilst movements around abolishing borders are gaining momentum, activists are being severely criminalised and defined as ‘terrorists’, making it more difficult to protest without facing full state repression. As the violence of deportations is fundamentally rooted in racist articulations of state immigration policies, I wanted to ask how, you think, we should mobilise for the future? How can we utilise everything we know to end deportations.
LDN: That’s a huge question that no one individual can or should have the answer to. I suppose we begin by expressing our solidarity with migrants, especially those who are made illegal, detained, and deported. Those most affected often express the most radical and vibrant politics – they give us direction, hope and energy.
I also really think we have to recognise the gravity of our moment. I am always told that calling for a world without borders is unrealistic. That may be so, but we don’t have that much time! Economic and ecological crises are worsening and immigration controls, globally, are forcing people to stay in places where life is becoming unlivable, whether because of war, climate change, or poverty (and most often a combination).
When the world is shaping up the way it is, we should not be retreating to tepid positions like: ‘yes to detention, but with a time limit’; or ‘yes to refugees, but no to economic migrants’, or ‘sure, we need some deportations, but not charter flights’? We can and must demand more than a slightly nicer immigration regime.
We have to be brave enough to mobilise against all forms of border violence (which is all forms of immigration control), even if we don’t expect to win tomorrow. And in doing so, in expressing and living our solidarity with people who are illegalised, fenced out, and deported, we can show that it could be otherwise.
Defining our political commitments within the container of the nation is both unfeasible and undesirable. These are profoundly nightmarish times and insisting on an end to all deportations is the only way we can respond proportionately to the violence of the racist global order.
EM: To end, I wanted to ask what your own song choice would be.
LDN: That’s hard because unlike Chris and Denico I have a much less intelligent approach to the songs I’m listening to. But I’m gonna say Conrad Tokyo by A Tribe Called Quest just because I only discovered it last week and have been rinsing it. I just listened to it now and imagined the immigration detention centres of this country being razed to the ground by the nearly 3,000 ‘immigrants’ currently held under threat of deportation. It sounded better.