“I could not honestly paint you a very rosy picture of your future in Britain,” a Sierra Leonean who worked for the Colonial Office told the 492 Caribbean immigrants who had sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush 70 years ago this month. Conditions were not as favourable as they may have thought, he told them, the Manchester Guardian reported. ‘They would see the scars of war wounds that are still bleeding. Were they highly skilled? No – then it would not be easy to find a job.’
Beyond the worries about finding a job, however, was a deeper unease about what sort of welcome awaited them in what many of the migrants regarded as the ‘mother country’. As the Guardian noted, ‘Britain has welcomed displaced persons, has given employment to Poles who cannot go home. “Surely then,” said one of the immigrants,“there is nothing against our coming, for we are British subjects. If there is, is it because we are coloured?”’
A month before the anniversary of that ship docking at Tilbury, the descendants of those early migrants from the Commonwealth might have asked themselves the same question as their fight against deportation to countries they left as children became national news.
The Guardian broke the story of dozens of people in their 60s who had been told they were living in Britain illegally, and suddenly faced trying to prove they had lived in the country for half a century. They needed four items of documentary evidence for every year of residence in Britain, they were told, leading to years of stress for some as they were left in bureaucratic limbo, unable to visit dying parents abroad or receive any welfare benefits. Others had visited family in the Caribbean and found themselves refused re-entry to the UK or had been wrongly deported.
Nearly all of those affected had been educated in Britain, and could point to decades of steady employment, national insurance and pension contributions. But without a new biometric identity card to prove their right to residency they found themselves targets of the British government’s aggressive ‘hostile environment’ policy towards supposedly illegal immigrants. Victims described struggling for years against a faceless bureaucracy to prove their right to live in the UK, often losing their jobs and then facing eviction from their homes because they could not pay the rent. They included Michael Braithwaite, who arrived from Barbados aged nine in 1961, had always assumed he was British but lost his job as a respected special-needs teaching assistant because he could not provide the necessary paperwork to prove his right to remain in the UK. Another, Judy Griffith, said: ‘I did jury duty three times. In fact, I was asked to do it again even while I was being told I didn’t belong in this country.’
As the scale of the scandal grew, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory calculated that 57,000 Commonwealth citizens living in Britain, including people born in Kenya and Canada, could be in a similar situation.
The cherished ideals of the Commonwealth Charter, with its pious references to ‘shared values and principles’ and ‘concern for the vulnerable’, seemed to be in short supply around Whitehall as the London Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) neared and the entreaties of 12 Caribbean high commissioners to discuss the plight of the ‘Windrush generation’ were rebuffed by the prime minister’s office. That was until the growing row, being played out on the front pages of the UK newspapers, began to eclipse preparations for the London CHOGM, which the government had been hoping to use as a means to reboot the Commonwealth as an ersatz European Union for post-Brexit trade. Theresa May made an abrupt about-turn and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, was forced into a humiliating apology and condemnation of her own department about the ‘appalling’ treatment meted out (though May, as home secretary for six years, had instigated the ‘hostile environment’ policy and indeed recently vowed that it would continue).
A day after Rudd promised it would be made far easier to get formal recognition of their status, a whistleblower revealed that all the landing records of the Caribbean-born residents on the Windrush and subsequent ships had been destroyed by the Home Office in 2010, thus removing the most crucial evidence of people’s arrival date (and thus eligibility for indefinite leave to remain under the 1971 Immigration Act). Rudd pledged that citizenship fees would be waived and language tests, a further humiliation for those who had spent half a century in the country, would be dropped. After a few more days of leaks, U-turns and apologies, including an admission from Rudd that the Home Office had set targets for deportations – soon after denying their existence. Days later, she had resigned, amid jibes from the opposition that she was May’s ‘human shield’.
Writing in the black community newspaper The Voice ahead of Chogm, the Home Office minister Caroline Nokes had declared: ‘We have absolutely no intention of asking anyone to leave who has the right to remain here. We will handle every case with sensitivity.’ A fortnight later the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, himself a second-generation immigrant, rejected the ‘hostile environment’ phrase, promised to ‘do right’ by the Windrush generation ‘who have been in this country for decades and yet have struggled to navigate through the immigration system. This never should have been the case and I will do whatever it takes to put it right.’
It seems too late for that. Hubert Howard, who wept after finally winning confirmation from the Home Office that he was here legally after his story was highlighted in the Guardian, lost his job in 2012 because of the issue and became ill, he believes, from the stress. ‘Every time I called they said they didn’t know anything about me,’ he said. ‘Thirteen years. This has been painful for me. It’s destroyed my life.’
And a month after a chastened Home Office had supposedly learned lessons from the scandal and Javid made his pledge in the House of Commons, a 62-year-old man was arrested over a minor offence from two decades ago, which he denies, after being asked to attend the Home Office’s immigration department – to collect his biometric card, he thought. The ‘vulnerable’ man had been living ‘underground’ on friends’ sofas due to fears over his immigration status, with no access to healthcare, though he has diabetes, or welfare benefits, said his MP, David Lammy.
‘The prime minister and home secretary have repeatedly told Windrush citizens to come forward. My constituent did what he was told and he is now in prison. This is outrageous,’ said Lammy. ‘This man is the face of the “hostile environment”.’