venerdì, Marzo 01, 2024

Notizie dal mondo

The never-ending saga of the Windrush scandal

Can money and portraits ever compensate?

by Lucy Mitchell Pole

The Windrush Generation story starts in post-war Britain in the late 1940’s, with the economy struggling to get back on its feet, severe labour shortage and vast areas destroyed by bombing that needed rebuilding. Parliament in 1948 passed the British Nationality Act to give people from the West Indians and other Commonwealth countries the right to come to Britain, live and work, with all the rights of British citizens.

Caribbean countries were also struggling economically and life was very hard there as well, so the offer of jobs in the UK was eagerly accepted by many. Therefore, when the invitation arrived, people eagerly boarded Her Majesty’s ships to start a new life in England. Between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people moved from the Caribbean to Britain and The Empire Windrush was one of the first vessels to arrive in Southampton.

Many of those who came became manual workers, drivers in public transport, cleaners and nurses in the newly-established National Health Service, nannies for babies and carers for the old. In the post-war years the Windrush Generation played a key role in rebuilding the country and reshaping British culture and identity.

Anyone who had arrived in the UK from a Commonwealth country before 1973 was granted an automatic, legal right to remain, unless they left the country for more than two years. Since the right was automatic, they neither needed nor were given any documents upon entry to the UK, nor following changes in immigration laws in the early 1970s. Many worked or attended schools in the UK without any official documentary record of their having done so, other than the same records as any UK-born citizen, who are not required to carry any form of ID to this day.

So, what happened to change everything?

In 2012, under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, an abominable programme was instituted by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary: The Hostile Environment policy. The specific, intentional aim was to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants living in the UK without papers, hoping that they would leave voluntarily when they found it impossible to live and work under this law.

Jamaican immigrants welcomed on 1948
Photo: English Heritage

The new policy enforced identity checks by the NHS healthcare, landlords, banks, schools etc. and instructed them to refuse their services if anyone was unable to prove their legal status in the UK, risking heavy fines for landlords and business owners who did not comply. The policy thus actively encouraged racist behaviour and discrimination: the refusal of services, education, employment and housing became ever more routine to anyone without detailed legal documents proving their status.

But London’s previous legal obligations and the recognition of international human rights were thus trampled over, as for example, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers (by definition without papers) who had no other country to go to without risking their lives, and the rights of the half a million people who had arrived legally, on government invitation, since 1948, precisely the “Windrush generation”.

The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 specifically protected long-standing residents of the UK from Commonwealth countries from enforced removal. This provision however was not transferred to the 2014 immigration legislation. According to a Home Office spokesperson, at the time there was no need to protect Commonwealth citizens living in the UK before 1 January 1973 because were already “adequately protected from removal“.

Since 2013, people started to receive letters claiming that they had no right to be in the UK. Many who had spent their entire lives in the UK, contributing to rebuild the country in very hard times were now being treated as ‘illegal immigrants’. Many were denied access to healthcare, lost their jobs or were made homeless because they could not prove their right to be in the UK. Some were thrown into immigration detention, deported to a country they had left as a child and never returned to since, or being refused the right to return to the UK from abroad. 

In fact, the Home Office immediately started receiving notice that people from the Windrush generation were being unjustly treated as illegal immigrants, but no action was taken to prevent further abuse until much later on. The numbers of people affected by this calamity grew exponentially as they sought guidance from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Windrush National Organization. The WNO, a group of independent advocates, solicitors and community activists, was set up expressly to address and overcome the Hostile Environment trap.

There were at that time attempts by Caribbean leaders to bring the question to light in Parliament, but all to no avail. This abhorrent, racist policy remained in place, permeating the country, encouraging discrimination both in practice and in general attitudes and behaviour.

Then in 2017, various newspapers started to pick up the story, but it wasn’t until 2018 that it arrived in Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, then Labour leader, repeatedly accused Theresa May and her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, for being personally responsible for the unjust and inhuman treatment of many innocent people.

In April 2018 Downing Street refused a second time to talk with Caribbean diplomats, concerned about the numbers of senior citizens being deprived of their rightful benefits and even made homeless. At this point these systematic violations of fundamental human rights became known as “the Windrush Scandal”.

The nation was shocked and appalled when the crude facts and many personal and family stories hit the news in 2018. The government set up a Compensation Scheme for people living in UK since before 1973, including free citizenship applications for children who joined their parents in the UK when they were under 18 and for children born in the UK of Windrush parents. But by November 2021, only an estimated 5 per cent of victims had received any compensation and 23 of those eligible had died before receiving payments.

In March 2020 an independent Windrush Lessons Learned Review, was conducted by the Inspector of Constabulary – with statutory responsibility for the inspection of the police forces – Wendy Williams. The report concluded that the Home Office had shown “ignorance and thoughtlessness” and that what had happened had been “foreseeable and avoidable”.

It also found that immigration regulations had been tightened “with complete disregard for the Windrush generation” and that officials had made “irrational” demands for multiple documents to establish residency rights. The Home Secretary who ordered the Report, Sajid Javid, said that similar treatment must ‘never again happen to any group of people’. Yet to this day, the institutional racism built into the Hostile Environment, even if the name of the policy has been changed, continues to mangle people’s lives. Many people living in UK, including asylum seekers, are unjustly dismissed, detained, refused public services and threatened with deportation.

So how many people did get a government compensation payment for this intolerable treatment? According to the Home Office statistics of June 2023, 1,518 people had received compensation as yet. Another 381 had had their claims refused and 1,988 had been awarded zero compensation. Of an estimated 15.000 victims believed to be eligible for compensation, some 90% had yet to receive any payout since the scandal broke out six years ago.

In a project designed by king Charles to bring recognition to the Windrush people, he commissioned ten leading artists from Britain and abroad to create portraits of ten pioneering members of the Windrush Generation, to mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush to British shores in 1948.

The exhibition, entitled ‘Windrush: Portraits of a Pioneering Generation’ would be on display in The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace from 10th November 2023 to 14th April 2024.

The King’s speech was inspiring, and not only for those who had lived through it all. Half a million people, after a lifetime of sacrifice, after being abused “systematically” by the officers of the Home Office, losing jobs, homes, benefits, pensions and health care, were now witnessing the king make a genuine effort to do what was in his power to set things right.

It is, I believe, crucially important that we should truly see and hear these pioneers who stepped off the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 – only a few months before I was born – and those who followed over the decades, to recognise and celebrate the immeasurable difference that they, their children and their grandchildren have made to this country.”

Since the scandal got into the news in 2018, many people’s stories have emerged. People who had been too mortified by their condition to speak or write about it before, finally began to realize that they belonged to a whole army of victims. It became clear that it was not their fault in any way; it was the Home Office of the May government with their infamous Hostile Environment policy that had caused so much unnecessary suffering.

One man’s tale, reported by CNN, is just one of many similar stories. C. N. was born in London to parents from Jamaica and Nigeria. For 26 years, he was to all effects, a UK citizen with a British passport – until it was taken away by the Home Office after he tried to renew it in 2000.

For the next 22 years, he lived in constant fear as his living conditions became increasingly devastating. He had to close his business and could not get employment or social housing due to his lack of documents. He was sleeping in a tent or in an abandoned van in a supermarket car park, often going to bed hungry.

Luckily, he did come across people, while living in Bristol, who gave him a hand in various ways; gestures of solidarity that C.N. feels were vital to keep him going.

A phone call from the Home Office in 2018 acknowledged that C.N. was a British citizen, but, having no fixed address, he could not receive any written communication. For the next four years, he remained homeless while he desperately tried to regain his passport.

Finally, in 2022, C.N. received his passport from the Home Office. The first thing he did was get a job, of which he says: “I’m proud to say, I work as a bin man. But even though I’m back in the real world – it’s too late for me. I’m 49 years old now. The Home Office has taken my life from me.”

Benjamin Zephaniah on 2018
Photo: Edwardx – CC BY-SA 4.0

Another poignant tale, Windrush Child, was written by Benjamin Zephaniah, university professor, writer, musician and actor and best-known, Afro-Caribbean poet in the UK. Professor Zephanaih died after a short illness, at a very young 65 years old, little more than a month ago, on 7th December 2023.

The book will resonate with many who have experienced similar stories and is ideal for use in school. The little boy, Leonard, arrives in England from Jamaica with his mother, following his father who had left years earlier. Manchester is cold, his father is a stranger to him and even the Jamaican food doesn’t taste the same as it did back home. But his parents wanted a better life, so Leonard does his best not to complain, to make new friends, to do well at school – even when the other boys hurt him with their words and with their fists.

As an adult, he finds a job and falls in love; he gets married and has a baby daughter, Grace. He grows to love Britain as much as he loved Jamaica; and defines what being British means to him.

The story follows Leonard all the way up to 2018 when he is 71 years old. He decides to take Grace to visit Jamaica. He applies for a British passport for the first time but at the passport office, he is arrested. He is denied citizenship by the British Government, despite the fact he has lived in Britain for over 60 years.

The novel ends with Leonard in a desolate prison cell, determined not to die there. He is being helped with his legal case by Winston, a friend he had made as a little boy on the ship journey to England, who had since become a human rights lawyer.

In Windrush Child, Zephaniah transmits the important lessons about the values of inclusivity and diversity; that history is happening every day; we all have our part to play. The book closes with an empowering call to action, spurring us as the reader, to shake off feelings of hopelessness, to stand up and speak out every time we see injustice.

Saturday, January 27, 2024 – Year IV – n°4/2024

On the cover: Empire Windrush packed with west Indian immigrants on June 1948 – Photo: English Heritage

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