03.04.2014 Yesterday, Wednesday 2 April at 9PM, 19-year-old ‘A’ level student Yashika Bageerathi was deported from the UK despite a massive campaign for her to stay, led by the students and staff of her school.
I am disgusted, like so many others, as I always am when I hear of another person helpless against the cold bureaucracy of the state, removed without consideration from the place that they call home. I am heartened, like so many others, to see the vast numbers of people who tried to stand up for the right of this one girl to live in peace in our country. But I have also heard people on both sides of the issue ask, ‘what’s so special about this girl?’ and they have a point. Because hundreds of people face deportation every year, and they don’t all get such a fuss made over them. Does this re-entrench the harmful dichotomy of the ‘worthy’ and exceptional migrant versus ‘unworthy’ or ‘unwanted’ migrants?
By all accounts, Yashika seems like a lovely girl, a bright girl with offers from good universities, likely to go on to do very well in life, but not an exceptional girl. The dribs and drabs of her family’s story has emerged bit by bit in the media, and the story is not a pretty one – attempted rape and violence on the part of a family member is an ordeal to be taken seriously. However, and I am talking purely on the basis of what the media has reported here and I appreciate that I have no legal authority to say this, but it seems that she is not a refugee. In order to qualify as a refugee in this country you have to be able to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in your home country on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political views or membership of a particular social group. It is a narrow set of criteria and deliberately so. Being threatened or attacked by a drug-dealing uncle simply doesn’t fit into those grounds. The argument I have heard many too many times on this issue is that if we start accepting women who have been abused into the country as refugees, too many would qualify. It’s a sick logic, but it remains the law. And so despite all the support for Yashika, despite all we have tried to do, the fact remains that the Home Office has acted lawfully in removing her. Disgustingly and perversely, maybe, but lawfully. And that’s important. It’s important because it emphasises how very unexceptional she is, how very normal her case is, perhaps even, that despite the support she has, she is more like all the other ‘undesirable’ migrants that our government has sworn to remove than it would be too comfortable to admit.
What is interesting, is that the majority of Yashika’s legion supporters that I have heard tweeting and writing articles over the past weeks do not seriously base their arguments for her being allowed to stay on the fact that she is a refugee who would not be safe in Mauritius. Nor do they claim she is anything more than a bright student and a valued member of her school. Yashika is not presented as either a refugee or a ‘Tier 1’ highly skilled migrant, she is just a girl. A normal girl, or, let’s take it further, a human being. With her school friends and her ‘A’ levels to take and a good number of people in this country have recognised her humanity and simply do not understand why it is so important to chase her out.
I am sure that many of those same people have not yet recognised the humanity of each individual asylum seeker and immigrant in this country and have not yet come to the same conclusion that each of them should stay. The shock and outrage at the government’s failure to step in and ‘save’ Yashika speaks for itself here – when people recognise an immigrant’s humanity, they find it outrageous that they should be so ill-treated. When the same thing happens to a faceless group of ‘illegal immigrants’ they do not feel the same. They haven’t noticed that they, too, are human.
Yashika’s is not an exceptional case where high-ranking government ministers should intervene because it’s so unbearable. The people who are asking themselves how Theresa May and James Brokenshire can stand idly by while such a horrible case plays out are forgetting that they DO IT EVERY DAY. They watch cases of ordinary law-abiding people being up-rooted from their families, their communities, the lives they have made and dreamed of and sent off elsewhere to danger, to poverty, to isolation as a matter of routine. The Home Office spends its time actively implementing these operations where removing someone like Yashika is not an outrageous aberration: it is the whole point. Removing people like Yashika is the aim of government policy to ‘bring down net migration’ and create a ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal immigrants’ and to them, Yashika is as fair game as anybody else.
The great thing is that so many people don’t agree. That’s the real lesson to be learned from this campaign: not that the Home Office is heartless, but that people can be convinced of an immigrant’s humanity, even if they don’t fit within our narrow definition of the ‘brightest and best’ that are the only ones we are supposed to want.
Now, once a lot of people have realised that one of these ‘illegals’, just one of these ‘undesirables’ is actually a human person, who may not need a million pounds or anything else at all exceptional about her in order to have a decent claim to stay where she is, among her friends and community, and continue her education. Once people have seen it once, the challenge is to make them see it again. To use Yashika shamelessly to challenge the dominant narrative of the migrant as the benefits cheat, as the terrorist, as the undesirable. If we could get more people to view many many more migrants living in the UK and in fear of removal as fully human, fully ordinary, fully valuable, fully like Yashika, then we’d be getting somewhere. Then perhaps the logic of exclusion, of division and of deportation can be questioned.
And question is what people have been doing: Why do we have to chase down a young girl before she completes her education? Why book three flights for her one after the other, before the rest of her family are able to make a plan for what to do and how best to protect her? Why hold an innocent young girl in a notorious detention centre for weeks? And, come to that, at what cost? The Migration Observatory has estimated that in 2010, keeping somebody in detention cost an average of £120 per night. And that doesn’t count the number of seats booked for Yashika’s benefit on three separate planes heading off across the world. I think that a lot of people are thinking, not that Yashika is somehow special and deserving of extra attention, but that she is just a normal nice girl and that spending so much money and heartbreak and energy on her deportation is a complete failure to adequately prioritise. It is a dedication to being ‘tough on immigration’ at the expense of any basic humanity or even logic.
It needs to be questioned, again and again, by those of us who have never worried that we may be arbitrarily removed from the UK or have our children removed from us. By those of us who have never had to justify to a seething mass of Tories and UKIPers our continued existence in the country. The accident of being born to the ‘right’ family in the ‘right’ place frees many of us from such concerns. Shame on those who continue to act as though they had personally built Big Ben and founded the NHS and that’s why immigrants aren’t entitled to them. Shame on those who would pursue every last school girl who doesn’t fit within their narrow definition of who is acceptable. Power to the people who saw Yashika as another human being and who spoke up for her. Power to all the immigrants fighting to stay and to build their lives here alongside us. We must not give up and we must remember that every one of them is another Yashika: they are all human, they all deserve the same certainties from life that some of us take for granted, and to forcibly deport any one of them is a humiliation and degradation of our common humanity.