Deporting Black Britons: Review

Deporting Black Britons is much more than it first appears; exploring deportation of young men from the UK to Jamaica, it deals not only with immigration controls but policing, international relations and structural and historic racism in the UK and globally.  It is at once expansive and ambitious, as well as deeply personal and intimate.  By moving from global political structures in one breath to a little girl crying for her stepfather in the next, the narrative remains academically rich while ensuring that the reader never escapes the real life consequences of policy and history.  

According to de Noronha, deportation was an exceptional form of immigration control in Britain for almost all of the twentieth century.  He argues that its contemporary growth (according to, 5,203 Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) were deported in the year ending June 2019) is due not to increased migration, but modern intensification of bordering.  In other words, deportation is used for its symbolic function: States are in control, and “citizens belong because, unlike unwanted ‘migrants’, they can’t be deported” (7).

The author begins with a detailed introduction in which he situates his arguments within the framework of the interplay between citizenship, racism, immigration control and policing.  He also outlines his position as researcher and the potential bias and power dynamics therein, as well as some justifications for the techniques he has chosen.  

The introduction is immediately followed by the life narratives of four young men who grew up in Britain and were deported to Jamaica, where the author meets them.  This format is refreshing; instead of analysing theories, putting forward ideas and shoe-horning in relevant examples, de Noronha meets real life head-on.  The reader is asked to begin by understanding the people affected on their own terms.  This not only lends the book a sense of authenticity, it allows it to act as an example of how good research could and should be done.  The ‘subjects’ speak for themselves, articulating the problem in their own words, offering context and insight.  This technique is not only ethically sound, it also lends weight to the author’s subsequent reflections and analysis.  

The first chapter tells the story of Jason, who had No Recourse to Public Funds in the UK, since he was not registered as British when the rest of his family were.  Jason himself brushes over this confusing fact, and the author doesn’t push it.  In terms of tone, this small detail offers a sense of the author’s commitment to having stories led by their narrators.  On a broader level it forces the reader to recognise how chaotic life can be, and how easily people can become vulnerable in this system of citizenship rights.  Jason spent much of his time in the UK living on the streets, a fact harshly juxtaposed with the visit to his old school in Jamaica, where he had been a promising student.  

The next chapter tells Ricardo’s story, which hinges on the over-policing of young black men. Those who have read Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, will recall the chapter on policing, which begins with a brief anecdote of Akala’s first stop and search at the age of “twelve, maybe thirteen”: “There was no adult present and I was not read my rights; this is both completely illegal and entirely normal” (169: 2018).  Indeed, what is striking about Ricardo’s experiences with the police are just how repetitive they were, how inevitable they ended up being.  He was so often arrested (and released without charge) that he ended up staying in his house to avoid the police.  He was also subject to heavy surveillance and daily police visits to his home.  It is striking not only that he had not been charged with a criminal offence at this point, but that he was so very young, still a teenager.  

What is special about this chapter is how transparent de Noronha is about his own reactions to these ‘findings’, and how willing he is to be challenged on them by Ricardo.  The author admits that for him this is a simple story of “racist criminal justice in action” (73).  But, Ricardo argues, his white and Asian friends were arrested and visited at home, too.  For him there is more to it than race; the white and Asian boys with whom he shared neighbourhoods and schools were criminalised in similar ways, even though Ricardo admits that he was arrested more than they were.  The author’s readiness to engage with complication allows for a deeper exploration of the issue.  Locality is significant, as is class, age, and sex.  But does that make race less significant?  

This problematization is revisited with Chris, whose friendship group was also multi-ethnic.  Here the author suggests that instead of negating racism, the fact of his peer group’s shared experiences might be evidence of a societal understanding of ‘black culture’ as “contagion” (101).  He recalls David Starkey’s claim that “the whites have become black” (100). 

Chris is the only man who had the right to work and claim benefits. However, he cites a lack of economic opportunities and punitive benefits sanctions as the reason behind his decision to sell drugs at a time when he needed money to support his children.  This, according to de Noronha, is the same decision often taken by Brits in this position, and demonstrates not that Chris failed to integrate, but that he was “too well integrated”.  

Finally, Denico’s is a love story: imperfect and messy, but underlined in heartfelt, relatable terms.  We hear from his fiancee’s mother, who spoke of her joy at seeing her daughter with “the right person”, and how excited her grandchildren had been for the wedding.  Denico appeals his deportation on the basis of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to family life.  This right is not absolute, but subject to a proportionality test.  In the case of ‘foreign criminals’ judges must weigh up the individual's right to private and family life against the ‘public interest’ of that person being deported.  

Denico’s story serves to expose how narrow  legal definitions of ‘family life’ are.  The Home Office was able to argue that Denico’s relationship with his fiancee was not “genuine and subsisting”, since before he was imprisoned he had not lived with her full-time, and subsequently his incarceration represented a separation anyway.  Likewise since her children had already been separated from him when he went to prison, the Home Office held that removing him from the UK altogether would not lead to ‘unduly harsh’ consequences for them.  Alongside these judgements are simple, real-life details about Denico’s loving, supportive and pragmatic relationship with his fiancee and her daughter.  But, as de Noronha puts it, “lived family connections are effectively rubbished [through the appeals process]” (127).  Significantly, Denico burnt the legal documents when he returned to Jamaica.  Here lies the beauty of this book; the author articulates the situation in theoretical, abstract terms, then suddenly brings the real-life consequences into sharp, human, deeply relatable focus. 

De Noronha meets the families and friends of those who have been deported, a chapter which serves two important purposes.  Firstly, by engaging with people with different ‘levels’ of citizenship, he is able to compare their vulnerabilities and demonstrate “hierarchies of citizenship” within the UK, and how the threat of deportation “sharpens” these hierarchies. Secondly, meeting those ‘left behind’ - the broken relationships and the confused children - allows the reader to see how deportation hurts not just those who leave, but those who stay.  This is powerful, and could be developed through an engagement with Chris Bertram, who argues that rules in a democratic society have to be justifiable to everyone, and that immigration norms fail this test (Bertram 47: 2018).  Bertram suggests using the “veil of ignorance” idea to think about migration: what system would you choose if you had no knowledge of your own personal circumstances - i.e. your nationality and the nationality of the person you have fallen in love with?  

From these personal, intimate stories, the author steps back, offering an analysis of the relationship between Jamaica and the UK before zooming out further, to show how “citizenship is fundamental to the racial ordering of the world and the (re)production of a racist world order” (173).  In terms of the UK’s relationship to Jamaica, de Noronha explains how “the myth” of sovereignty is used to obscure the reality.  He argues that, “the inequalities between the UK and Jamaica are historical and relational…. And yet deportation relies on the myth that states are equal, sovereign and independent” (193). By depicting Jamaica (and, by extension, all ex-colonies) as “sovereign and independent”, the UK (and other States) are able to argue that violence and poverty in Jamaica are a result of national policy.  He calls this a  “kind of ruse”, or “ideological trick” (197).  

These in-depth, sensitive accounts of four men’s lives are thought-provoking and at times very moving, yet they are all convicted criminals, variously admitting to using drugs, committing crimes and being violent.  But the author is not trying to defend them as individuals, nor does he attempt to legitimise their crimes.  For de Noronha, the problem is much bigger than them, the problem is a system based on racist citizenship laws.  As he puts it:

“To understand the contemporary racial ordering of the world, it is important to view racism in terms of the reproduction of structural and material colonial-racial inequalities in the present… nationality is the key legal mechanism through which racialised global disparities are obscured and legitimated.” (198)

Responding to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, an official spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson told us the PM does not believe the UK is a racist country. Similarly Munira Mirza, the No 10 advisor chosen to set up a new commission on racial inequalities, is skeptical about institutional racism, previously arguing that the UK is “conspicuously fair and tolerant by any reasonable standard”, and bemoaning Britain’s “political self-flagellation regarding the subject of race”.  This is why Deporting Black Britons is all the more urgent; it shows us how racism goes way beyond intolerance and discrimination, but is fundamental to modern bordering, immigration policy and citizenship.  This is a vital read for anyone interested in answering that question honestly: is the UK a racist country?

Rose is studying for a Masters in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the University of London.  She is also training to be an Immigration Advisor. Previously, she was a support worker on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.