The shocked and outraged response over the past week to the death of Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga has been interesting, if not consistent. Reports suggest that he suffocated on board an aeroplane to Luanda while being restrained by guards acting on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding Mubenga's death are horrific, and the failure of any of the other passengers to intervene is troubling. However, there is something slightly hypocritical about the desire to 'sanitise' deportation.
Deportation, especially of asylum seekers, is bound to be unpleasant. This is not to excuse the actions of the guards. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that deportations are excessively and unnecessarily violent. However, deaths, like Mubenga's, directly in the process of deportation, are relatively rare: only one out of an estimated seventy-seven that can be directly traced to the asylum system as a whole. Many of those were people so terrified of returning to the places they fleed that they took their own lives. It seems significant that some of the onlookers on Mubenga's flight decided not to act because "when Mubenga said 'they are going to kill me' it wasn't clear if he was referring to the guards or his political adversaries in Angola".
Does it matter? Should the British government feel any less shame or remorse if an asylum seeker is killed at the hands of their countrymen than from the action or inaction of individuals representing the British state? Or even if the terror of return drives them to suicide? In each case, the govenment's decisions have meant death - I don't see how the rest of the circumstances are at all relevant. Thus while the death of Jimmy Mubenga is undoubtedly a tragedy, one which should provoke anger and reproval, it is only one tragedy among seventy-seven, each as damning and outrageous as this one.