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A hostile environment: Understanding the Windrush scandal

The similarities of the recent experiences of the Windrush generation to the plight of the DREAMers in the United States, are striking.

Image Credit: Andy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency
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“The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
Theresa May, 2012

Paulette Wilson probably didn’t think that the white vans emblazoned with the message, “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” were directed at her when they arrived on the streets of the capital in late 2013. After all, Wilson, now 61, had come to Britain at age 10. Her mother, who she never saw again, had sent her from Jamaica, a country to which she never returned, to live with her grandparents.

Wilson’s nightmare began in 2015, when she received a letter telling her that she was in the U.K. illegally and had to leave within six months or be taken into custody and deported. What followed were 18 visits, one every month, to the Home Office Information Center in Wolverhampton, a little over 100 miles from London, where she was living at the time. On each and every occasion, she and her daughter, Natalie Barnes, tried without success to convince authorities that she was, in fact, a British citizen.

The UK Guardian, who reported on and later updated Wilson’s story, told readers that she had attended elementary and secondary school in the town of Telford where her grandparents had lived and had paid taxes throughout her working life. The absurdity of the situation she faced was highlighted by her former job as a cook in a House of Commons restaurant.

Her experience, which eventually included six days in the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center, wasn’t an unfortunate anomaly, it was part of an ongoing scandal that has already figuratively claimed the head of the Home Secretary (equivalent to the Secretary of the Interior in the U.S.), Amber Rudd, who resigned on April 29th.

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For his part, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, had been among those who rose to the defense of these immigrants of Wilson’s generation during the debate over the 2013 Immigration Law that advocated a ‘hostile environment’ for those deemed to be illegally in the country, including long term residents without proper documentation.

As Corbyn told the House of Commons before Rudd’s late April resignation, “These policies swept up British citizens and legal migrants causing them immense suffering… Can the PM send a clear message and tell us the hostile environment is over and that her bogus immigration targets that have driven this will be scrapped?”

In replying to her Home Secretary’s resignation, the Prime Minister, who likely hoped Rudd’s departure would quiet the increasingly strident criticism directed at her government, ignored the actual issue raised by Corbyn in favor of empty platitudes directed to her subordinate, “You should take great pride in the way you have led the Home Office and its dedicated public servants through a number of serious challenges… You have done so with great integrity, compassion, and selflessness -notwithstanding the personal and political challenges you have faced during this period.”

The Windrush scandal as it has come to be called, adds to a growing image of incompetence at best and bad intentions at worst that have dogged successive Conservative governments since 2010. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has been further tarnished by her own tenure as Home Secretary under former PM David Cameron from 2010-2016, when, as Corbyn has noted, Wilson’s problems, and those of so many other Britons, began.

Who are the Windrush generation?

The Windrush generation, as explained by Time Magazine, was “named for the ship Empire Windrush, which in 1948 brought hundreds of Caribbean immigrants to Britain, which was seeking nurses, railway workers and others to help it rebuild after the devastation of World War II.”

They were immigrants from former colonies who arrived between 1948 and 1971, mainly from the Caribbean. Under the most recent Immigration Law, that of 2013 (and last updated in May of 2014), these long term citizens, “were forced to prove continuous residence in the UK since 1973, something that turned out to be almost impossible for those who have not kept up detailed records.”

During the early years of this wave of migration most of the countries from whence these immigrants came hadn’t achieved their independence, meaning that those who arrived considered themselves subjects of the British Commonwealth, with all the rights of citizenship that this implied at that time.

Under the law as it was then understood, all those Commonwealth citizens who arrived before the Immigration Act of 1971 came into effect in 1973, along with their wives and children (husbands were not recognized), were permitted to join them in the United Kingdom and were supposed to be given permanent status. Making the situation more difficult for some, many of those who formed the Windrush generation were children and traveled to the UK on their parents’ passports.

As Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University told The Darlington and Stockton Times, recent census data, “…shows that 90% of around 600,000 Commonwealth migrants who came to the UK before 1971 and were still resident here in 2011 held a British passport and that 57,000 did not. Perhaps more importantly though, it shows that about 21,000 pre-1971 Commonwealth migrants did not have any passport at all.”

This was the main problem facing Paulette Wilson and thousands of others, including some who were presented with bills for medical care by the National Health Service (NHS) until they could prove their citizenship.

In an interesting twist, this same NHS hopes to recruit 5,500 Jamaican nurses to deal with a crisis in staffing, with experts saying that this will be just a drop in the bucket of the 34,000 positions that need to be filled. Of course, the new program called, “earn, learn, return” won’t allow them these nurses to stay, but will employ them for around three years before sending them home.

In a Kafkaesque twist to the Windrush story, the landing cards that recorded their arrival in the country and would have proven their legal status were destroyed in 2010 when May was Home Secretary. In fairness to the PM, it’s important to note that the actual decision was made the year before, when Labor was in power  and that there is no proof that May knew that this was taking place as it was in the hands of the UK Border Agency who the public service British broadcaster Channel 4 reported, “decided to destroy a raft of documents under the Data Protection Act [of]1998.”

Nonetheless, the 2013 Immigration Act, a piece of legislation that the current PM sponsored, was one of the main problems in that it made employers, doctors and even landlords into an arm of immigration enforcement, allowing them to deny services to people who couldn’t prove their legal status.

In some cases this resulted in long term unemployment and even homelessness, making it more difficult for these legal immigrants to engage the system and fight for their rights.

An argument can be made that these policies were based as much on political considerations as they were on fealty to the rule of law. Then Home Secretary May and her Conservative Party had to be aware of the growing influence of right-wing British populism that was then being embraced by some in her own party and would ultimately end in a vote to leave the European Union that she then opposed.

It is a supreme irony that the government now has fewer than 300 days to negotiate this Brexit deal, and has yet to settle on many of the vital issues involved, which, besides decisions on the customs union and trade, include the status of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which could be closed despite the fact that Northerners, although split, voted 55.8% in favor of remaining in the EU.

In terms of the Windrush generation, there are few groups that can match their contribution to the country’s prosperity and culture. If they could be targeted, then other immigrant communities, including EU citizens who built lives for themselves in the UK pre-Brexit, should probably be concerned.

Understanding this story is important in terms of understanding that the right, whether it calls itself populist or not, is taking an increasingly radical stance in terms of immigration throughout most of what’s called the Western world. In the case of the UK, whether the harsher aspects of the 2013 immigration law were based on deeply held beliefs or were a response to the then growing influence of the rightwing populism most associated with one of the current U.S. President’s models, Nigel Farage and his UKIP Party (now in terminal decline under new leadership), is irrelevant to those cruelly targeted under the law.

Although the circumstances were different and they are from a different generation, the similarities of the recent experiences of the Windrush generation to the plight of the DREAMers in the United States, are striking. Rather than being unique in his indifference to the human cost of his decisions, the current U.S. president, like his British counterpart, is just another in a long line of con artists who call themselves conservatives and go after those least able to defend themselves, scoring political points with the ignorant and the objectively stupid in the process.

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