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When the Windrush Blows

I was busy over the weekend, so didn’t get the chance to repost this here until today: a post I made to Metafilter on Friday on the news story of the week, which for too many people is the story of the last five years.

Last week’s Commonwealth Games brought a warm glow to many viewers in the “Home Countries” of the UK, but for those with ties to the wider Commonwealth it was a reminder of the chill now surrounding them. This week, stories of elderly members of the Windrush generation (named for the ship that brought the first post-war West Indian migrants to Britain in 1948) being dismissed from their jobs, denied NHS care, refused reentry to Britain, and even deported to countries they hadn’t visited since childhood, brought the consequences of former Home Secretary Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants into the full view of the British public and press, after years of warnings from lawyers, reporters, MPs and the people affected.

Under pressure in Parliament, current Home Secretary Amber Rudd apologised, and now-Prime Minister Theresa May eventually followed suit, but such apologies ring hollow when we know that the government was told about the impact of May’s policy two general elections and one divisive referendum ago. On Tuesday it emerged that in 2010, landing cards that had been routinely used to check Windrush generation claims had been destroyed—a decision made by the UK Border Agency in 2009, under the previous Labour government, but carried out while May was Home Secretary.

The consequences of such actions can be and have been profound. Windrush generation children came to the UK as British citizens, but many lack the documentation that the Home Office now requires of them, either because it was lost or was never collected or issued in the first place (having been wholly unnecessary in the many years beforehand). A clause protecting longstanding Commonwealth residents (such as Windrush generation residents) from enforced removal was removed from the 2014 Immigration Act, allowing the Home Office to deport longstanding residents en masse to Jamaica. Even some of her fellow government ministers considered May’s immigration policy “almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany”.

The Cameron government’s cuts to Legal Aid in 2013 contributed to the problems undocumented migrants faced. Immigration lawyers can point out, for example, that current Home Office advice is wrong: Windrush migrants don’t need evidence of UK residency for every year since 1973 (when Commonwealth rights to move freely to Britain were altered), but instead since 1988, when laws around Indefinite Leave to Remain changed. The difference this makes can be seen in the case of Dexter Bristol, who was asked to provide school records from the 1960s and 1970s which were long gone, and “spent the last year of life trying to untangle his immigration situation, repeatedly attempting and failing to get the Home Office to acknowledge that he was not an illegal immigrant”.

Although the story is being reported as a “Windrush scandal”, this is really a much bigger one, of the hostile environment and all its insidious effects, showing what happens when anti-immigrant hysteria takes over. As the recipients of anti-immigrant hysteria du jour, the lesson is not lost on EU27 citizens living in Britain, or their many friends. The Windrush scandal connects profoundly with Brexit, both as a product of the same political environment that drove the referendum result, and as a warning of the future that EU27 children may face in post-EU Britain.

Maybe you aren’t bothered, because [you lack any sense of empathy and] your kids were born British? If those kids were born outside Britain, you might soon be: the fee for children to register as British is the next Windrush scandal.

 

The prime minister should resign, the Home Office should be shut down, the Conservative Party should be dissolved, and the government should pay reparations to everyone whose lives have been ruined by this hostile environment. Also, as the illegitimate offspring of the hostile environment and data-led breaches of electoral law and norms, Article 50 should be withdrawn.

Also also, for any Tory politicians proposing that post-Brexit Britain should introduce free movement between Britain and Australia, please excuse my hollow laughter. I would have benefited from such a policy myself at one point, but after seeing how Britain has treated past beneficiaries of freedom of movement, Commonwealth and EU, who would now trust their futures to it?

 

Since this post also speaks to the wider issue of British relations with other Commonwealth countries, here’s a piece from earlier in the month: Sorry, Brexiters. Banking on the Commonwealth is a joke. We could now add that banking on the Commonwealth after you’ve been treating its citizens so inhumanely is liable to backfire. Which would be some sort of justice, but at a terrible cost to all of us.

 

“Act Jamaican,” they said when they deported me. But I’m British. This is an important piece, because it shows how questions of “legality” or “illegality” are far from a straightforward way of determining who should stay and who should go, and are no simple path to justice. For people brought here as children, raised here, this is their home and it’s shaped their identity in profound and irreversible ways. It shouldn’t even matter if they’ve been convicted of a crime: they’re a product of Britain, and a mature and confident country would take the rough with the smooth. Having the sentence for a crime come with a bonus sentence of deportation, exile from your family and friends, and being forced to live as an alien is wildly disproportionate, whether it’s for a drugs offence or for gunpowder, treason and plot. Even convicted murderers get to see their mums during visiting hours, if they’re British-born. But ahhh, they’re one of the good murderers...

 

As the stories that Amelia Gentleman and others have been reporting have shown, the Windrush generation have rarely been targeted by the Home Office at first—they’ve come to its attention through the effects of the hostile environment.

Employers know that they now have to ensure that employees have the right to work here, or face £20,000 fines. Better check the people who look or sound different. Oh look, they’re undocumented: sorry, we’ll have to let you go. The employers don’t even need to report the affected people to the HO: the people will turn to the HO in desperation to try to get the papers they need. And that’s when they come onto their radar.

Not only employers, but NHS frontline staff. Benefits officers. Landlords. So, no job, no medical care, no welfare, no roof over your head, no legal aid: one way or another, you will come to the authorities’ attention.

When I read Stasiland in 2004, a nonfiction account of East Germany which won awards here in Britain, it seemed a nightmare vision: a society where half the population were spying on the other half. I didn’t expect that in 2018 I’d be living in Stasiland Lite.

My son performed with his school choir in a singing competition recently, in a theatre across town. The three of us caught a cab home afterwards, giving the driver our address in the south of the city. He asked us how long we were visiting for. We live here, I said. Oh? For how long?

Seventeen years.

“...Do you still like Edinburgh?”

We could so easily go full Stasiland. When you speak differently, or look different, everyone’s curious: that curiosity can be innocent, or can seem innocent in certain lights, until it isn’t, and doesn’t.

(Yes, I said, and meant it, in large part because this was Edinburgh in 2016. But Edinburgh on its own can’t defeat the Home Office.)

 

Later developments...

Amelia Gentleman’s scathing response to Rudd’s statements is essential reading.

Home Office data exemption sparks fears of further Windrush scandals: “If the data protection bill’s ‘immigration exemption’ becomes law, it will be near-impossible to challenge poor decision-making in immigration cases, or prevent the Home Office destroying evidence that could help people prove their right to be here.”

24 April 2018 · Politics

“Home countries”, after “home counties”, was how the BBC was describing the constituent countries of the UK throughout the Commonwealth Games coverage—perhaps because the more usual “home nations” is an unfortunate reminder of the revival of nationalism that has made the 2018 Commonwealth Games a less innocent watch than the 2014 ones, let alone the 2012 London Olympics.

Added by Rory on 24 April 2018.


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