Windrush Day 2021
‘History shows that it is not only senseless and cruel, but also difficult to state who is a foreigner’ ―Claudio Magris, Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea
22nd June 2021 marks the fourth celebration of Windrush Day, the day intended to honour the British Caribbean community and the half million people who travelled to the UK in the wake of the Second World War. While Windrush Day is a day for us to celebrate, we must simultaneously use this day to sympathise with the hardships faced by the Windrush Generation on their arrival to this country and, more recently, their treatment following the introduction of the hostile environment policy.
Who are the Windrush generation?
On 22nd June 1948, the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Dock in London carrying some 500 settlers from the Caribbean (Thurrock Council, n.d.). The name ‘Windrush generation’ has been given to them and the ensuing Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK after the Second World War and before 1973 to help re-build a post-war Britain. After World War II, the Labour government decided to import thousands of Europeans displaced by the war (Small and Solomos 2006). When the limited supply of Europeans was soon exhausted, the British government began recruiting from the Commonwealth, particularly from the Caribbean (ibid). There is no definitive estimate of how many individuals came to the UK during this period, however, some academics put the figure at more than 500,000 (NAO, 2018).
The Commonwealth citizens were exercising the right afforded to them by the British Nationality Act 1948, which stated that any citizens of ‘the United Kingdom and Colonies’ to be ‘a citizen of that country shall by virtue of that citizenship have the status of a British subject’ (GOV UK, 1948). The Act was reflective of Conservative Party policy in the 1940s, which is evident in ‘The right road for Britain,’ a party official document published in 1949 under Winston Churchill’s name. The document stated that, ‘there must be freedom of movement among its members within the British Empire and Commonwealth… new opportunities will present themselves not only in the countries overseas but in the Mother Country, and must be open to all citizens’ (Conservative and Unionist Central Office, 1949). In 1948, the Empire and her Commonwealth were made up of some 458 million people (Kukathas, 2019). Hargrave (2018) argues that the British government did not actually believe that bestowing this right to enter would have any real impact on immigration other than to bring in the much needed labour force they required from preferably white territories like the Dominions. Hence, the government did not necessarily consider the idea that non-white migrants would use this as a means to enter as well (Hargrave 2018). In fact, the government were reluctant to allow the Windrush to dock once they were informed that the boat was carrying black passengers (ibid; Cavendish 1998). The government faced a dilemma. They had no choice but to allow the Caribbean-born Britons to dock in London because they had passed legislation which explicitly gave Commonwealth citizens the right to enter the Mother Country. It is because of their status as Britons that the Windrush passengers were unlikely to be given the appropriate documentation when they arrived, as they were not foreigners, but natives.
From this point onward, immigration became a highly politicized and in fact, racialized issue. Somewhat ironically, The Evening Standard met the passengers with the banner headline, ‘Welcome Home’ when in the next few decades the citizens were made to feel further from home than ever before (Olusoga, 2016, p.493). The ensuing years saw riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 as concerns grew over the rise of ‘too many coloured immigrants’ coming into Britain (Solomos, 2003). Signs began appearing in shops stating, ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ (Gulliver, 2014).
The proposed solution to the growing unrest was to find a way to attempt to restrict black migration from Commonwealth citizens but it was not until 1961 that legislation was presented to Parliament.
The Conservatives then introduced the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which did not completely freeze the influx of Commonwealth migrants but limited their rights (Small and Solomos 2006). Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 heightened racial tension among the British populace. When coupled with reports of ‘teenagers with flick knives’ going ‘nigger bashing’, this hostile culture made integration for migrants already living in the country even harder (Hargrave 2018, p. 58). The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 was ‘even more explicitly racist than its predecessor’ and removed the right to enter Britain for British passport holders in East Africa whose passports were identical to those in Britain and who therefore were not subject to the restrictions of the 1962 Act (Miles and Phizacklea, 1984). Following a wave of ‘Africanization’ policies in East Africa resulting in a huge influx of East African Asians seeking refuge in their home country of Britain, the Conservatives introduced the 1971 Immigration Act. This Act marked the endpoint of the Windrush generation as it stripped British citizenship away from hundreds of thousands living in the Commonwealth. The 1971 Immigration Act was pivotal for migration to Britain as it made British passports across the world ‘meaningless over night’ (Hargrave, 2018).
The 1971 Act also paved the way for the mistreatment of Windrush families and their children. Life in 1970s and 1980s Britain for ethnic minorities became marred by stories of urban violence and unrest (Small and Solomos, 2006). In 1979, Thatcher won the election with a sweeping majority and made the infamous statement on immigration and its impact on British culture: ‘some people have felt swamped by immigrants, they’ve seen the whole character of their neighbourhoods changed’ (Thatcher, 1978).
The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the subsequent Macpherson Inquiry put the spotlight on the government to actively combat institutional racism. Ironically, Lawrence’s parents had emigrated from Jamaica with the Windrush generation in the 1960s and his murder can be seen as a cruel magnification of the criminalization of the black youth in Britain (Lawrence, 2007). The 1997 election of New Labour began to indicate the winds of change in Britain and the new government committed itself to tackling racism and integration. The 2000 Race Relations Act was met with positivity by the British populace but equally did not take up all the recommendations by the Commission for Racial Equality, particularly those highlighting changes that needed to be made to immigration, asylum and refuge (Small and Solomos 2006).
In 2010, the Conservatives won the election with a promise to bring down net migration (The Conservative Manifesto, 2010). Theresa May’s tenure in the Home Office promised to introduce a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants. The implementation of the ‘hostile environment’ spelt the demise of the Windrush families who were not given all the additional documents, which everyday public services were now requiring. In a particularly cruel twist, the Home Office had allegedly destroyed the Windrush children’s ‘landing cards’ in an ‘office move’ in 2010- a decision that would have life changing implications (Gentleman, 2018).
The 2015 General Election saw the Conservatives elected on a promise to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union the following year. Government surveys indicate that ‘immigration’ was paramount in the minds of voters following the 2016 referendum (Nuffield College, 2018). An increasingly adversarial environment brewed for migrants in Britain, just as it had done in the years following ‘Rivers of Blood.’
What is the Windrush Scandal?
At the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in London, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that she was ‘genuinely sorry’ about the anxiety caused by what became known as ‘the Windrush scandal’ (May, 2018). The political scandal saw an unknown number of individuals, particularly from the Caribbean, being treated as if they were in the United Kingdom illegally despite being lawfully resident for many decades. Many lost homes and jobs, and were denied benefits, healthcare and pensions. Others were wrongfully detained, removed or deported, and some who had left the UK on holiday were refused re-entry, and had their settled life in the UK unjustly stripped from them (BBC, 2018). The appalling treatment of these individuals is what became known as the ‘Windrush scandal,’ stemming from the name given to the thousands of Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK in the period from 1948 to 1973, making up the ‘Windrush generation.’
The policy disaster has been linked to the Conservative Party’s ‘hostile immigration policy’, which, as the then Home Secretary Theresa May stated in 2012, is designed ‘to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’ (May, 2012). The implementation of the hostile environment involved the introduction of legislative and administrative measures designed to make staying in the UK extremely difficult for illegal immigrants and encouraging them to ‘voluntarily leave’ (Broomfield, 2017).
The public became aware of the scandal, which the Home Office had been warned about for years, as a result of The Guardian newspaper’s exposé. The Guardian published stories of Jamaican-born Britons who had, for example, been told to pay £54,000 for cancer treatment or had been told that they would be deported back to the Caribbean despite having left in the 1950s (BBC 2018, Gentleman 2018). In April 2018, the government acknowledged the fact that the Windrush generation had been treated unfairly and set up a taskforce to help the individuals affected (GOV UK, 2018).
The government insisted that the treatment of the Windrush families was a ‘coincidental error’ (Kuenssberg 2018). The government attributed the error to the Home Office destroying landing cards recording the arrival of Windrush citizens during an office move in 2010, when Theresa May was Home Secretary (Gentleman 2018). The destruction of the cards then made it basically impossible for the older Caribbean-born residents to prove their right to remain in the UK. The implementation of the ‘hostile environment’ in 2012 then inadvertently lead to the eruption of the scandal.
It is important to see this history of the Windrush generation and their experience with the British government as more than a one-off error by Home Office administration or a coincidental mistake. The Windrush Scandal is one incident in a long line of discrimination, trauma and overt racism. The relationship between the United Kingdom and the Caribbean began in 1623 when the first British ships arrived on the islands (Lammy, 2018). What ensued can only be described as centuries of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and suffering at the hands of the British government. In 2020, that suffering continues to be perpetuated. At least 13 wrongly deported members of the Windrush Generation died before the Home Office acknowledged the mistake. The Home Office revealed in May 2020 that there had been 1275 applications to the Windrush Compensation Scheme. Of these, only 60 have any received compensation. The hostile environment policy is still very much in place.
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