They are the children of the ‘Windrush’ generation, welcomed to Britain from the Caribbean as a response to post-war labour shortages. They worked and paid taxes for decades, assured they were British through their Commonwealth status.
Now their future is under threat. Some, mostly from low-income backgrounds, have been put under tremendous pressure to prove their ‘Britishness’. Jobs and homes have been lost, healthcare has been denied and several were sent to detention centres and threatened with removal to a country they hadn’t seen since they were children.
Despite being here legally, many have never formally naturalised or applied for a British passport and with the successive tightening of immigration rules, most controversially under the Home Office’s “hostile environment policy”, they are unable to prove their status.
“They tell you it is the ‘mother country’, you’re all welcome, you all British. When you come here you realise you’re a foreigner and that’s all there is to it,” says John Richards, one of the original passengers on the MV Empire Windrush, which arrived in Essex in 1948.
Around 500 settlers from Jamaica, many of them ex-servicemen, arrived on the ship. This was the first wave of Britain’s post-war drive to recruit labour from the Commonwealth to cover employment shortages in state-run services like the NHS and the London Transport.
‘I’m British and have lived here nearly all my life, so why must I leave?’ Glenda Caesar is part of the ‘Windrush Generation’, one of thousands of Caribbean immigrants who now face an uncertain future https://t.co/LQhyhbfUzm pic.twitter.com/vP6C5MO5Sv
— ITV News (@itvnews) April 12, 2018
The so-called ‘Windrush children’ like John have lived in the UK for most of their lives, legally allowed into Britain to address the labour shortages at the time.
Because they came from British colonies that had not achieved independence, they arrived as British citizens. But as successive governments set increasingly harsh immigration regulations, they were suddenly required to justify their presence by producing decades-old paperwork.
In recent days, the issue has exploded onto our screens, with the Caribbean leaders arriving for the Commonwealth conference, revelations that landing cards were destroyed, and a very public row between the political parties over blame, with fumbling apologies coming from the Prime Minister.
There has been public outcry across the political spectrum as stories emerge from a son unable to return to bury his mother, to a grandfather refused cancer treatment, to a man sacked from his job, denied benefits, classed an illegal immigrant for having no passport and dying on the street.
Monish Bhatia, a lecturer in criminology at Birckbeck University of London, specialises in undocumented migrants. He says the current immigration policies are “racist” and have been shaped over decades to be “intentionally cruel.”
Story after story has emerged of Commonwealth citizens arriving decades ago, working and paying their taxes only to be made homeless, prevented from accessing healthcare and other government services because they could not find the necessary proof they had been in the country for decades.
Part of the problem has been a requirement to provide four pieces of evidence for each year that a person has been in the country.
Junior Green arrived here as a baby in England aged just 15 months, in January 1958. He has lived in Britain his whole life. After a short trip to Jamaica to visit his dying mother, he was not allowed back into the country and missed her funeral.
Junior Green has lived in the UK for 60 yrs since 1958. He returned to Jamaica to be with his dying mother. Her body was repatriated to the UK and he was not allowed to attend her funeral. I am disgusted. Justice must be done and will be done. #Windrush pic.twitter.com/1gqovRzTIT
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) April 18, 2018
Nick Broderick revealed to the BBC he had contemplated suicide if he was deported to Jamaica, a country he’d left as a baby in 1962. Renford McIntyre told The Guardian he had lived in the UK for almost 50 years and was now homeless, after being told he was not British and therefore was not allowed to work or access any government support.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) April 13, 2018
Over the last few days, increasingly horrifying revelations have emerged as the Windrush generation have become front page news. It was revealed that officials destroyed the landing cards which could have helped support Windrush cases, despite warnings from staff.
Until this week, the government has remained silent when challenged over the treatment of these British citizens. Prime Minister Theresa May had refused to intervene when it emerged a man was denied cancer treatment until he could pay a £54,000 bill or prove his citizenship. She had also rejected a meeting requested by leaders of the Caribbean countries to address the matter.
When Home Secretary Amber Rudd was asked if there had been wrongful deportations, she said she would have to meet Caribbean High Commissioners urgently to “find out if there are any such people who have been removed”.
The Windrush scandal has united people from across the political spectrum. Both Labour and Conservative MPs have spoken out against it and even the Daily Mail, notorious for its anti-immigrant stance, has provided sympathetic coverage.
A petition launched to give amnesty for anyone who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971 has received over 170,000 signatures, although some people have objected to the word “amnesty” – believing it implies the Windrush generation were not legally entitled to live in the UK in the first place.
– Gary Younge
This week, the government has done a U-turn with both Rudd and Prime Minister Theresa May issuing apologies for the “appalling” treatment of these immigrants and May agreeing to a meeting with the leaders of Caribbean countries.
A taskforce has been set up and application fees have been waived with May even promising compensation will be given to those already affected.
The British Empire & hostility
The rapidly emerging scandal is all the more stark because of the Commonwealth Games celebrated earlier this month, with Prince Charles opening the games and mentioning in his speech “… the potential of the Commonwealth to connect people of different backgrounds and nationalities.
Richard Sudan, the grandchild of a Windrush immigrant, writes in The Independent that in the wake of Brexit, Britain is hoping to emphasise Commonwealth relations but that the ‘Windrush’ scandal is revealing.
“Britain has never fully faced up to its own violent, colonial past. Now, as a result of economic decline, Britain is dealing with an accelerated crisis of identity, having never had an honest conversation with itself about its true history. Many people want to deny the past, even though it has shaped our multicultural society today. They instead seek to blame victims of the system, the people who helped to build it, for all of society’s wrongs.”
Labour MP David Lammy condemned the government this week in the House of Commons, saying:
“The first British ships arrived in the Caribbean in 1623, and despite slavery and colonisation, 25,000 Caribbeans served in the first and second world wars alongside British troops.”
When my parents came here they arrived as British citizens. This has come about because of the hostile environments policy begun by Theresa May. If you lie down with dogs then you get fleas. This is where so much anti-immigrant rhetoric gets us #Windrush pic.twitter.com/qTF3Va5dq9
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) April 16, 2018
He added: “This is a day of national shame, and it has come about because of a ‘hostile environment’ and a policy that was begun under her Prime Minister. Let us call it as it is: if you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with the far-right rhetoric in this country.”
The hostile environment was an essential part of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Act, with then-Home Secretary Theresa May boasting of creating “a really hostile environment” for immigrants.
Sometimes called the “compliant environment”, the policy’s aim was to create a situation where [supposedly illegal] immigrants could not access services, either public (NHS, welfare) or private (employment, rented housing, bank accounts) unless they could prove their right to be in the UK.
The requirement to prove status has caused a great number of difficulties for many Windrush children, who have never applied for passports and did not retain proof of their residency for every year they lived in the UK.
– Professor Rob Ford
There is no concrete available data on how many people could end up in this position but some estimate over 50,000 British citizens could be affected.
Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester and expert on the politics of immigration, says that these stories are only now being heard because the people affected often have very little contact with government agencies.
“They tend to be in irregular employment or retired; they are often people who have never travelled abroad since they came here and have no official documents so are essentially running against a brick wall,” he says.
Ford says that when the “hostile environment” was put into place, the government was warned by civil society that this would be the result.
“They knew that there was a segment of the public that had been here for many years that had no passports and they did not do anything to provide some sort of solution when it came up, they just left it and this is where we end up today.”
Bhatia says successive governments’ regulations have contributed to the state of immigration today.
“In 1969, it was Labour that took over an introduced the immigration appeal act which set conditions for entry and institutionalised deportations for the first time,” he says.
Ford adds that Enoch Powell’s speeches happened in reaction to two pieces of Labour legislation: The 1971 Race Relations Act and the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 which was “anti-immigration” and occurred because “the Wilson government was massively spooked by the public’s reaction to the Kenyan Asian crisis”.
Kenyan Asians had their British citizenship retroactively revoked to prevent them from easily coming into Britain. Ford says one of the reasons the Race Relations Act passed was to “blunt the impact” of the first Act. “This was the first time the pairing of good race relations and tough immigration control was made explicit,” he says.
Leaving the past
Gary Younge writes in The Guardian that Britons must ensure the “rightful outrage about the exclusion of those who are now, finally, perceived as “worthy immigrants” does not blind us to the outrageous immigration policies that made such exclusion possible and will continue to exclude others deemed “unworthy”.
He adds: “The mistake the government made was assuming the woes of a few elderly black people born in the Caribbean could not prick the nation’s conscience. They underestimated the pull the Windrush generation could have on Britons’ sense of self.”
The Windrush cases have fuelled concern over how EU citizens will be treated after Brexit and how other immigrant groups are surviving Britain’s hostile environment.
Bhatia suggests the current Windrush scandal could be used to reassess the kind of immigration controls in place.
“We need to talk about how border controls are affecting different group of people, the types of harms it is generating and the government policies that are incredibly racist.”
The stories being told about the hardships faced by the Windrush generation do not exist in a vacuum, as less “worthy” immigrants deal with being illegally detained, going on hunger strike to protest poor conditions or being ill and removed only to later die.
There are countless witnesses of lives being thrown into turbulence as immigrants crash with policies that are increasingly hostile and bureaucracy that only grows more intransigent.