Months after the Windrush Scandal, where does Britain stand now?
It came in like a wildfire but went out with a small gush of wind. The Windrush scandal—which saw older members of Britain’s Caribbean community deliberately detained, deported, and denied basic rights in pursuit of the so-called “Hostile Environment” policy—features in every newspaper for a week. After that week, it slowly faded back into obscurity as we all returned to our normal lives.
Those caught up in this botched immigration strategy don’t have the same luxury; many are still recovering from the weeks, months or years of mental and financial hardship, attempting to get their lives together after their period of victimisation, and all are left wondering why a country they have spent the majority of their lives in—working, contributing, paying rent, paying taxes, building a family, building a home—so easily turned their backs on them.
The answer lies partially in the words of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, a few days before her eventual resignation: ‘I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual.’ But many will argue it’s more than that, and portrays Britain’s true attitude, both historic and current, towards race and migration in this country. And even more immediately, it provides a small taster into the immigration policies this country may pursue after Brexit.
Paulette Wilson is a former cook at the House of Commons. Her case was the first one highlighted by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, who single-handedly dragged this issue into the light. She told Wilson’s story, one that included the 61-year-old being sent to an immigration removal centre for a week before being taken to Heathrow for deportation to Jamaica, a country she hadn’t lived in regularly since 1968.
Only a late intervention by her MP kept Wilson in this country. Her country. ‘I felt like I didn’t exist. I wondered what was going to happen to me. All I did was cry, thinking of my daughter and granddaughter, thinking that that I wasn’t going to see them again.’
The stories become progressively worse. Albert Thompson, for example, was denied cancer treatment despite working for 44 years as a mechanic in England. For a nation that boasts the NHS and it’s worldly, inspiring idea of being free at the point of use, Thompson’s plight flew in the face of the ethos of these shores.
And then there’s Dexter Bristol, now deceased. The family barrister, Una Morris suggested back in July that the ‘extreme stress’ he had been under as a result of proving his legal right to be in this country may have contributed to his death.
And, central to all these cases, is the difficulty of Windrush migrants’ ability of proving their right to be in this country. The Second World War saw Britain in desperate need of rebuilding and the HMT Empire Windrush that carried 492 West Indians soon became emblematic of the mass migration from the Caribbean as they came to fill labour shortages.
The 1971 Immigration Act put an end to the huge influx of bodies from former British colonies, meaning that migrants from the Commonwealth no longer had an automatic right to come and stay in the UK, thus causing a real problem for those citizens who had neither the paperwork nor the passport to prove their citizenship.
Jessica Mayne, co-founder and secretary of the Caribbean Union at UKC, gave her reaction on behalf of the society: ‘The government’s treatment of the Windrush Generation and their descendants is inhumane. It is disgraceful how our people, people who rebuilt this country, continue to be treated.
The fight for justice is not over just because media attention has decreased. People are still suffering. Theresa May’s commissioning of an annual “Windrush Day” should not be viewed as progress, but rather as a token gesture in an attempt to save the public image of herself and her government.’
Theresa May is the self-confessed architect of the hostile environment policy. It began in 2012, long before her premiership, back in the days when she led an intriguing former life in the Home Office. Far from the dithering, contradictory, indecisive figure she has cut as Prime Minister, her period as Home Secretary was characterised by narrow-minded rhetoric and intransigent decision-making.
Perhaps the low point was the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans that patrolled most of the country, threateningly warning illegal immigrants that they faced deportation if discovered. Then there was May’s complete disdain for the Human Rights Act, showing a misunderstanding for what it actually was and how it contributed to the lives of British citizens, with one human rights group once telling her to get ‘her facts straight’ after a false claim.
Considering this, it is unsurprising that the Windrush Scandal occurred on Mrs May’s watch, with the Prime Minister displaying flagrant ignorance, shamelessness, and unaccountability in her 8 years in cabinet. The word “Windrush”, once shorthand for post-war revival, cultural integration and national acceptance may now, along with “Brexit” and “Grenfell”, be the defining words of May’s mistake-laden premiership. How she clung on at the height of this crisis is down to Amber Rudd and her resignation, even if she was only following orders.
‘Can Rudd tell the house how many have been denied health under the National Health Service?’ David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham and the man who has largely led the parliamentary fight, asked in the Commons back in April.
‘How many have been denied pensions? How many lost their job? This is a day of national shame, and it has come about because of a hostile environment policy that was begun her Prime Minister’. Even with the seemingly innocuous Sajid Javid, now Home Secretary, answers and clarifications are still hard to come by; and when they arise the Government normally attempt to sneak them by the journalistic back door, such as last month when Javid quietly announced that up to 63 members of the Windrush generation could have been wrongly deported.
Despite this, Javid claimed the government would only be apologising to 18 individuals who they believed were affected. Theresa May, last weekend, attempted to outdo his abject negligence by refusing outright to condemn the Hostile Environment policy in an interview with Andrew Marr.
The legacy of the Windrush scandal will likely live on, even if it has been arguably denied the deserved coverage. While this summer saw wall-to-wall coverage of Labour’s anti-Semitism problems, the damage the government’s migration policies have inflicted on British citizens seems to be but an afterthought to most mainstream media outlets.
Some, like Anthony Bryan and Michael Braithwaite, may find a way to get their lives back on track, but others like the late Sarah O’Conner, will likely forever feel the impact of the years when their government turned on them.
While The Guardian is exempt from this critique, it is mysterious as to why this story took so long to filter into the mainstream and has so quickly receded into the background once again.
It perhaps exposes a larger, very uncomfortable truth in British society, an idea reinforced during this year’s knife crime epidemic when assistant commissioner Martin Hewitt suggested that the “collective outrage” that should have been present was absent because the majority of victims from knife crime are from black communities.
It appears that the long-held notion among some black people in this country, that black death, black detainment, black injustice, and black suffering appears to register less in British society, is now gathering pace.
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of this unsettling episode was the complete lack of surprise expressed by many of the older members of Black British society. Many members had grown accustomed in their youth to mistreatment from the state and believed that, regardless of the progress this nation has since made, this style of abuse was never too far from returning from the surface.
As the historian and author David Olusoga wrote, Labour’s former Prime Minister Clement Atlee had explored the possibility of diverting the HMT Empire Windrush from British shores, with some members of the cabinet only taking hope in the notion that their Caribbean subjects wouldn’t last one English winter.
Then there’s the rampant racism that many of the travelling migrants faced on an everyday basis and the resulting race riots that dominated much of Britain until the 1990’s.
That is, perhaps, the only good lesson to take from this gruesome event, the only silver lining in this grey cloud of viciousness and hostility. The Windrush scandal may have just awoken members of the new generation to the prevailing theme that to be truly, conclusively accepted in this country, one must have white skin.
Anyone else—like Hubert Howard, like Elwado Romeo, like Richard Stewart, like Glenda Caesar and all the other suffering Windrush victims—is dispensable and superfluous. The government, once again, have a lot to do to reverse this perception.