Their stories came to light over the past few months: the harrowing accounts of middle-aged or elderly Caribbean immigrants who had lived nearly all their lives in the UK but were now trapped in a Kafka-esque scenario, where their nationality was questioned and the threat of deportation to a land they didn’t know, loomed large.
These were the children of the ‘Windrush generation’, families who had come from the Caribbean to Britain in the wave of immigration between 1948 and 1971 (the Empire Windrush was the name of the first ship these immigrants came over on). In 1948, all Nationals of the Commonwealth were British subjects, and these families were British citizens when they arrived. The children settled and grew up in Britain but some years ago Home Office policy saw them being asked for proof that they had a right to live in Britain.
However, many of these individuals never got passports made and they were unable to locate school or residence records as many of these places no longer existed. Individuals who had lived in Britain nearly all their lives were now being told they were illegal and would be deported. One affectee told of how he had worked and paid his taxes in Britain all his life but after Home Office rules requiring employers check documentation to prove resident status came into effect, he lost his job and was then unable to find work. Another, who was diagnosed with cancer was told he could not be treated by the NHS unless he paid over £54,000 for his treatment.
Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian newspaper focused on these people’s stories and the nightmarish scenario they found themselves trapped in. The paper led the way in highlighting these people’s plight and the utter absurdity of the situation. Channel 4 also ran a number of interviews with individuals thus affected, and finally after the matter received widespread publicity, and was raised in parliament a number of times, the Home Office and the PM both had to say sorry.
Recent revelations by a former Home Office employee about this have proved very damaging to the authorities. The former employee revealed that the Home Office had destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK. These were key immigration documents that would actually have supported the cases of many of those threatened citizens. And the person in charge of the Home Office at the time was none other than the present PM, Theresa May. And this was part of her ‘hostile environment for illegal immigrants policy.’
The Home Office has now been left with egg on its face. The Home Secretary had to apologise in parliament, and last week the PM apologised to the heads of twelve Caribbean countries attending the Commonwealth summit over the treatment of Windrush citizens, and had to promise that nobody would be deported.
But it is not clear how many people have already been (wrongly) deported. The Cabinet Office minister said it was not known if anybody had actually been deported — he had spoken about this to the Home Secretary and “the position is that we have no information”. Not surprisingly this was scoffed at by the shadow Home Secretary in a tweet, saying that this was ‘unacceptable’ as surely this was ‘just a matter of checking Home Office records’.
The ‘hostile environment’ policy has so far proved very hostile to people of colour, indeed some people have said it is clearly racist. But it also does not bode well for EU citizens in the UK who are now more fearful about their post-Brexit fate.
The most heartening part of this matter is perhaps the positive and pro-active role played by the press in highlighting this story of individuals being castigated by bureaucratic decisions. The coverage provided information and awareness and also created an environment where former Home Office employees were able to come forward as whistleblowers and reveal more key facts about the utility and destruction of records.
This story is not going away any time soon. The Conservatives have been going on and on about border control and the link between illegal immigrants and crime. Despite this their government chose to crack down on a group of people who were mostly low-income, were in work, and who had settled in the country legally with their families for up to forty-seven years ago…