David Jessop | Out of sight and out of mind?
Their plight no longer hits the headlines, but the shocking personal stories continue to emerge.
The treatment of an estimated 30,000 members of the Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants who helped make modern Britain continues to shame a nation that is likely in the coming years to promote the values of ‘Global Britain’.
Thanks largely to The Guardian and its award-winning journalist, Amelia Gentleman, the story remains alive. This is more than can be said for some of those affected or about the countless other undocumented individuals of Caribbean origin or parentage whose lives have been destroyed by the British Home Office’s (interior ministry) culture of hostility. This is despite the promises made by members of the British government about justice or the provision of £570 million (US$736 million) in damages to those who have been wrongly treated.
A recent case reported by the newspaper makes the point.
It involves a prominent Windrush victim, Hubert Howard, who died without receiving compensation or a personal apology from the British government. Although he was finally granted citizenship in October after publicity surrounding a notification sent by his lawyer to officials indicated that he was critically ill, he had spent the last two months of his life fighting from his intensive-care bed in hospital for his right to British citizenship.
To quote The Guardian: ‘Howard had not left the country since he arrived in the UK legally in 1960 (at the age of three). He first realised he had problems with his documents in 2005 when his employers, the Peabody Housing Association, asked him to show that he was in the UK legally. He tried to get a passport the following year so he could visit his sick mother in Jamaica, but the Home Office said it had no record of him and warned him that if he left the UK, he might not be allowed back into the country. His mother died before he was able to see her again. He tried on numerous occasions to apply for a passport. In 2012, he was dismissed by Peabody because he was still not able to prove he was in the UK legally. He died in debt as a result of losing his job.”
There are multiple other unresolved cases. Worse still, of the 88 people the British government has acknowledged were wrongly classified as immigration offenders and removed from the UK, 14 are known to have died before officials were able to contact them, and another 14 have yet to be found.
In her recently published book The Windrush Betrayal – Exposing the Hostile Environment, Ms Gentleman details aspects of the Home Office’s programme that are truly shocking.
She writes about a UK government film, Coming Home to Jamaica worthy of 1930s Germany, which suggests that deportees would find support, a welcoming and wonderful environment, and three meals a day when they were returned to a country of which most had no knowledge. She recounts the fragmentation of responsibility within the British government and in its high commissions when it came to consular matters. She also details the lack of contrition, the political delays to the promised reforms, quotes an expletive-containing comment from the current British prime minister whose concern was that the issue undermined the UK’s hosting of the 2018 Commonwealth summit, and the continuing desire of politicians to blame bureaucratic error rather than take responsibility.
What is clear is that the Windrush scandal – there is no other word for it – is not about some well-meaning, fuzzy, liberal issue. It is about the lives of significant numbers of powerless citizens who helped rebuild Britain after the Second World War. It is also about a state that publicly promotes the rule of law, treating people with dignity and humanity, and argues that justice, morality, and democratic principles are values worthy of adoption by the wider world. It is shaming.
Shame not just for the UK government’s failure to put into practice what they claim to believe in, but at the actions and inaction of successive senior politicians and officials who either through disinterest or by design pursued a ‘hostile environment’ policy in a manner that was discriminatory and more likely to be found in an authoritarian state.
These are issues that will not go away. There are many wholly innocent people of Caribbean heritage who are still trying with the help of lawyers, and if lucky, with media support, to escape from the Kafkaesque limbo into which the British state has cast them.
The issues involved raise questions, too, for the Caribbean.
While the Caribbean high commissioners in London are now more determined to seek explanations and provide active support, little has been said recently by the region’s political leaders. This is regrettable as what has happened to the Windrush generation continues to have wider resonance and genuine sympathy from many in Britain who have never thought much about the Caribbean, the UK’s colonial past, or the future relationship.
It is now probably too late for any senior Caribbean figure to publicly intervene in the UK’s imminent general election, to raise apolitical questions in ways that would require more than bland answers from the UK’s political class.
This is unfortunate. Inaction at a moment when the region potentially had leverage means it will be harder to influence the future UK-Caribbean relationship, create favourable outcomes for those affected, mobilise future diaspora lobby groups, or successfully prosecute the region’s case for reparations.
Left unaddressed, there is every reason now to expect that the problems that many in the Windrush generation continue to experience will be compounded and attention diverted. This is because Brexit will likely cause much larger numbers of EU and other citizens currently living in the UK who fail the residence-registration process to become subject to a newer form of hostile environment and deportation.
As an issue that directly touches the Caribbean and its extended community, ‘Windrush’ ought to be just as important to the region as the global and regional issues this column usually addresses. It is just as much about the Caribbean’s place in the world as addressing climate change, sustainable development, and rebalancing its international relationships.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com