After World War II, the British government invited migrants from the Caribbean to come and live and work in the United Kingdom. The first ship, MV Empire Windrush, brought nearly 500 migrants from Jamaica to Great Britain in 1948. Many more followed, and this generation of migrants, who were invited and welcomed, became known as the Windrush generation. In 1971, the Immigration Act granted indefinite leave to remain to Commonwealth citizens like the Windrush generation, who were already living and working here.
That should have been the end of that story. So how did the Windrush scandal happen?
Our immigration services are not so welcoming any more. In fact, they are deliberately the exact opposite of welcoming, tasked with developing a “hostile environment” by Tory leadership, with set deportation targets. To understand how we ended up here, we need to go back a few years, back to 2010. Frustrated with Labour’s ‘open door’ immigration policy, which was enshrined in EU ‘freedom of movement’ laws, the Tories wanted to take a ‘stronger’ approach to dealing with all immigration. They still faced EU laws, of course, and when the Tories took over the government in 2010, they were in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, whom they had to appease, policy-wise, on occasion at least. But they could target non-EU citizens. Who was the Home Secretary at the time, the person whose policies were built on the notion of a “hostile environment”? Theresa May. Put a pin in that for later.
In October 2010, boxes of documents that were stored in a basement were ordered to be destroyed for data protection purposes. Those boxes contained the landing cards for the Windrush generation. They were documents that proved their date of arrival and could verify their status as legal migrants. But the documents were taking up space, so they were destroyed. May would later blame the Labour government for this, and then the UK Border Agency rather than the Home Office. It is possible she didn’t know about it, although if she had, would she have saved those documents? Perhaps we can be charitable and see this first incident as an error. Perhaps.
And then, in 2014, this happened:
The Immigration Act of 2014 was a piece of legislation that increased the powers of Immigration Enforcement Officers and obligated the carrying out of invasive checks and searches of anyone deemed to be a foreigner.
The bill removed a key protection from the statute books for some British residents of the Windrush generation who could face deportation.
Speaking in the parliamentary debate at the time, Jeremy Corbyn described the Bill as “dog-whistle politics, the mantras being that every immigrant is an illegal immigrant who must somehow be condemned and that immigration is the cause of all the problems in our society.”
He concluded: “If we descend into a UKIP-generated xenophobic campaign, it weakens and demeans all of us and our society, and we are all the losers for that.
John McDonnell MP called the Bill “the most racist piece of legislation that this country has witnessed since the 1960s… aimed at setting up a regime of harassment for migrants.”
Incidentally, Corbyn was one of only 6 Labour MPs who opposed that Bill.
Then, somehow, at the 2015 election, the Tories held on to power. No more polite objections from Liberal Democrats this time, they were on their own. Part of this victory was perhaps David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership; Cameron was a Remainer, but wanted to appease the anti-EU Tories and try to pick up the UKIP vote. One of the Big Issues driving a lot of Leave campaign ideas was immigration. We all know how that worked out.
Cameron won the election, but lost the referendum, so he resigned, and Theresa May took over. Somehow, she held on to power in 2017’s snap general election, though the Tories had to be propped up again, this time by the DUP. May was replaced at the Home Office by Amber Rudd.
When Amber Rudd threatened to jail landlords renting homes to illegal immigrants at the Conservative party conference in 2016, she framed the policy as an act of political liberation. For five years, under the coalition, Theresa May had been “held back” by the Lib Dems.”Freed from the shackles”, it turned out, the new Prime Minister would be able to inflict organised cruelty on anyone suspected of being illegal - which of course means people who look or sound non-British, or are non-white.
The subsequent crackdowns meant that the Windrush generation, who — remember — had been granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971, suddenly needed to ‘prove’ they were here legally. And the government had destroyed evidence of their date of arrival.
Renting a flat, getting a minicab license, using the NHS - the routines of everyday life would become a filter against illegal migration. People whose status was doubtful would effectively be faced with a border patrol every day.
We’ve seen the results in the Windrush scandal. Rudd’s 2016 speech was designed to give permission to the xenophobia that had built up and burst through during the Brexit referendum campaign. As Rudd acknowledged, there was no way to target East and South Europeans as long as we were inside Europe, so the people targeted would be mainly from the Commonwealth and the Middle East.
The scale of the problem is horrendous, and the stories that are emerging from those affected are finally being told.
Many of the Windrush generation had arrived as children on their parents’ passports. And although they have lived in Britain for many decades - paying taxes and insurance - they never formally became British citizens.
Amid the tightening of the immigration rules, an estimated 50,000 long-term UK residents could now be facing problems.
Among them is Michael Braithwaite, who arrived from Barbados when he was nine, more than 50 years ago.
Thinking that he was British, Braithwaite never applied for a passport and did not realise there was a problem with his immigration status until 2016. In 2017, he lost his job at a school where he had worked for more than 15 years.
High profile Tories like Michael Gove might not like the phrase “hostile environment” but this is what was deliberately constructed — so much so that an immigration officer was secretly filmed explaining that his job was to make life as horrible as possible for people:
In the footage the man tells the Home Office official that having to report to Becket House weekly is worse than his time in prison. The official replies saying that he’s going to talk to him “on the level”.
The official then says: “What you got to understand, yeah, you take the piss out of the system, the system is going to take the piss out of you. We are not here to make life easy for you. It’s a challenging environment we have got to make for people. It’s working because it’s pissing you off. Am I right? There you go. That’s my aim at the end of the day, to make it a challenging environment for you. It’s pissing you off. You’re telling me it’s pissed you off. There you go, I’ve done my job.”
When the Guardian asked the Home Office if it was instructing its staff to make the environment challenging for migrants by “pissing them off” a spokesman replied: “The views expressed in this video do not represent Home Office policy.”
The man’s solicitor, Fahad Ansari from Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said: “The challenging environment mentioned by the immigration officer appears to be a reference to Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. The rationale behind this policy is to create an environment so utterly soul destroying to live in that people will voluntarily leave the UK.”
Amber Rudd has resigned as Home Secretary, and it’s hard to see this resignation as anything other than Rudd falling on her sword to try and protect Theresa May, as much of this happened on May’s watch and in line with her procedures. Rudd’s replacement, Sajid Javid, is keen to distance himself from the issue:
When he was appointed home secretary earlier this week after Amber Rudd resigned following the Guardian’s reporting on the Windrush scandal and an ensuing row over targets, Sajid Javid said that the phrase “hostile environment” was unhelpful. “The phrase ‘hostile’ is a phrase I’m not going to use,” he said. “It’s a compliant environment … it doesn’t represent our values as a country to use that phrase.”
But this is a rot that has set in far deeper than just one Home Secretary. It’s a scandal that should shame those who rode the wave of anti-immigration feeling to power, and have exploited it for their own gain.
There absolutely should be targets for the removal of ‘illegal’ immigrants which do create a hostile environment until they are all gone.— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorries) April 30, 2018
Do not let the Windrush error translate into an acceptance of illegal immigration with friendly greeting and a cup of tea waiting.
To uncover the extent of the rot, Labour proposed a motion to access the relevant documents:
The government defeated a Labour motion in the Commons seeking access to documents laying out the policies behind the Windrush crisis, promising instead to allow independent oversight of an internal review into what went wrong.
Labour had put down the same type of “humble address” procedure it used last year to force ministers to hand over their Brexit impact assessments, to seek documents and memos connected to the affair from 2010 to now.
But after an often passionate five-hour debate about how some citizens of Caribbean origin who arrived in the UK from the 1950s onwards were wrongly targeted as part of the “hostile environment” immigration policy, a three-line Conservative whip saw the government win by 316 votes to 221.
The Tories have proposed an independent review instead, but this really has the stench of a cover up about it. Gove tried to claim that Labour MPs are ‘weaponising’ the situation to deflect from their own issues with anti-Semitism. What are they afraid of? Theresa May’s days as PM are numbered; as soon as Brexit happens, she is likely to resign anyway. Which voters do they imagine they are scaring off? They have already picked up a substantial portion of the UKIP vote in the local council elections, and UKIP voters are more likely to complain that the environment isn’t hostile enough than worry about a nation treating human beings with contempt. Or is it that lingering concern that people will realise they really are the nasty party and have been all along? That isn’t news, dear.
Until we find out more about how this happened and who’s to blame, the arguments will rumble on. In the meantime, thousands of people have been affected by this inexcusable pandering to the worst xenophobic Little Britain attitudes of the right.
Hands up who else would accept a Britain full of people who've walked, swam, and strived through extreme conditions to get the chance to live here, than a Britain full of lazy racists who think they've a born right to be scumbags to total strangers without any context whatsoever. https://t.co/Lu1e2Qyd7z— David Gore (@GoricHistoria) April 30, 2018
What has happened to the Windrush generation is a travesty. We can do better than this, and we must. Theresa May has already apologized to 12 Caribbean nations for what has transpired so far. One of the arguments made by Leavers is that without the EU, Britain can strengthen its links with the Commonwealth nations instead. That’s not going well so far. If she’s not careful, May’s hard Brexit will turn into Brexile instead.
Tonight with the support of amazing legal volunteers @bcaheritage hosted another evening of #Windrush legal advice clinics. These are real lives, families and our community. Thank you for all the support coming forward. Together we are united. ✊🏾 https://t.co/KVsFtTDKEU— BCA (@bcaheritage) May 2, 2018
As a Black, British, Caribbean son of the Windrush and descendant of slaves I just voted against the hostile environment. I would have walked over broken glass to vote against it. I will never, ever support a policy that dehumanises human beings & treats immigrants as criminals.— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) May 2, 2018
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