Lessons on Windrush: The Lesser-Known Stories Behind the Windrush Scandal

By Christina Vassell

On March 2019, Windrush Lessons Learned Review was published. It came almost a year after the highly controversial, almost heinous and yet government sanctioned offences against any group of persons within its borders in recent times. 

In short, the Windrush Scandal was and still is, a British political scandal concerning those of Afro-Caribbean descent who were either wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, or wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office – the latter occurred in at least 83 cases. 

Yet, while the Windrush Scandal occurred in 2018, the cases included in Williams’ report seemingly evidence that such discriminatory legislations and practices occurred long before the scandal entered the public sphere and garnered mass media coverage

Contrary to popular belief, it is a scandal that is longstanding in British history and its genesis can be found in Britian’s imperial and colonial past as well as the many policies that were sanctioned in the mid-60s following the influx of British subjects from across the Commonwealth. 

The first of the arrivals was a passenger ship, The Empire Windrush, carrying 802 people from the Caribbean – including 492 Jamaican immigrants – arrived in Tilbury. The first wave of post-war Caribbean immigrants to arrive in the U.K. were predominantly male, from 1948 to 1950 were mainly men but women soon followed. Between 1948 and 1973, approximately 50,000 people from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and other Caribbean countries, that were part of the British commonwealth, were invited to emigrate to the UK in the aftermaths of WWII. That is, however, not to say that they were treated like British citizens.

Throughout the 50s and 60s it was evident that there was a colour problem in Britain. In 1955, it was said during a BBC television programme that: “Not for the first time in our history we have a colonial problem on our hands. But it’s a colonial problem with a difference. Instead of being thousands of miles away and worrying other people, it’s right here, on the spot, worrying us.” 

For Williams, “The causes of the Windrush scandal can be traced back through successive rounds of policy and legislation about immigration and nationality from the 1960s onwards, the aim of which was to restrict the eligibility of certain groups to live in the UK.” Such legislations that Williams is alluding to is the Commonwealth Act of 1962 controlled and arguably restricted the immigration of all Commonwealth passport holders (except those who held UK passports). 

The Race Relations Act 1965 also did little to stamp out the existing racism towards Black persons from across the Commonwealth, as in 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made an inflammatory, racist and anti-immigration speech. In a few years, legislations would only make it difficult for those coming into the U.K. under the guise of reform. While the Immigration Act confirmed that the Windrush generation had, and have, the right of abode in the UK, Wendy Williams writes that during this period “many were not given any documents to demonstrate this status. Nor were records kept.”

Such a historical legacy would culminate in the “hostile environment” from the late 2000s under Theresa May. It was during this time that Pauline, one of the people included in William’s review experienced immigration problems. 

Born in Jamaica, Pauline (70), was brought up by her grandmother and aunt after her mother left for the UK and started a family in Manchester with a new partner while she was a baby. Pauline was only twelve when she arrived in the U.K. after her mother and step-father invited her to join them in Manchester in 1961. 

After a tumultuous childhood, taking up caring responsibilities only to be abandoned again after her mother would relocated to Canada, Pauline went on to have children and qualified as a social worker. 

Pauline’s Windrush (scandal) story begins in 2005, when she went to Jamaica with her daughter on “a two-week holiday that turned into an eighteen-month nightmare” after being refused re-entry into the UK and subsequently being detained in Jamaica. For Pauline, who had often travelled on her Jamaican Passport, her case demonstrates the wider consensus that many descendants of the Windrush generation felt – that they regarded themselves as British already, thereby not thinking to get British citizenship. 

However, Pauline’s case soon began to take a toll on her mental and physical wellbeing. While she was detained in Jamaica, Pauline could not afford adequate medication for her existing diabetes and almost died after falling into a diabetic coma. During this time, she also lost her job and her house that she planned to buy but was ultimately unable to pay for. 

But the biggest effect was on her children, some of whom were in their teens and didn’t have any resources to help. Her youngest daughter ended up living in a hostel until Pauline’s return. Eventually, a solicitor who specialised in immigration issues was able to help Pauline to return to the UK in 2007. Pauline’s story is one that is the direct result of the “hostile environment” created by Thereas May, then Home Secretary, which began in the early 2000s. 

In 2007, amendments to the UK Borders Act meant automatic deportation for Foreign Nationals who receive a 12-month custodial sentence. Or notably in 2012 when Theresa May’s government issued new a policy that instructed the NHS, landlords, banks, employers and many others with enforcing immigration controls. It would go on to deny many including those from the Windrush generation who had not obtained documentations, proof of status or granted with British citizenship despite their long-term residency, thereby seeing the Windrush Generation and their descendants continually denied, outcasted and exiled by a country that had promised them socioeconomic opportunities for over six decades. 

Instead, changes brought about under the Immigration Act in 2014 introduced additional obstacles for those seeking to challenge [their] deportation on the basis of their family ties or [private] life in the UK.  In order to succeed in a deportation appeal on the basis of your parental relationship, “it is necessary to show that deportation would be ‘unduly harsh’ to the child, which has been interpreted by the Home Office to mean ‘excessively cruel’. But the irony of this amendment is that it glosses over the mishandling of the parents themselves. 

Such is the case for Veronica (59), who lives in Nottingham and came to the U.K. with her father Nathaniel in 1956. Upon arrival, Nathaniel decided not to go for British Citizenship because he already had his “black book” (Citizen of UK and Colonies passport); and like Pauline, he felt that he had been invited to the UK and was already a British Citizen. 

Nathaniel’s troubles began shortly after he and Veronica went to go to Jamaica in 2002. It was while there that he was prevented from returning to the U.K. there despite living in for over forty years, building his life with his wife and three daughters. 

Following the ordeal, Veronica came back to the UK alone and made arrangements to return and care for her father who was becoming increasingly unwell. After spending several years in Jamaica for a total of seven years, with her newfound husband, she decided to return to the UK to sort out her mounting debt and gaps in NI contributions. While in the U.K. Veronica left provision for her father to be looked after by a live-in helper once Joseph, her husband, successfully secured his visa.  

Veronica’s father would never return to the UK, ultimately dying from prostate cancer in 2010. He was not able to afford the cost of treatment in Jamaica, and Veronica believes he could have survived longer if he’d been in the UK with access to NHS treatment. These experiences proved to be debilitating and effected both Veronica’s mental health and career progression. But she feels that partaking in the Review allowed her come to terms with the fourteen-year struggle her father faced. But the price of the scandal is still being paid by Gloria.

Born in Saint Kitts, Gloria (59), travelled to the UK when she was 10 and was raised by her elder sister following their mother’s death. During this time social services were involved with the family because of their young ages. Gloria believes her passport was taken by them and not replaced. 

She eventually found work as a caseworker for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues, and became the main breadwinner in her family following an accident that affected her husband’s ability to work. 

Gloria’s immigration problems began in 2011 when she tried to get a CRB check renewal for the company she had worked at for several years. She failed the check as she did not have a passport, which resulted in her losing her job. Unable to prove her status, Gloria took the company to a tribunal but ultimately lost the case.

Following the trial, Gloria contacted her MP who wrote on her behalf and pleaded her cases to UK Visas and Immigration and Department for Work and Pensions, but to no avail. It would take her seven years to prove her status in the U.K.

As publicity related to the scandal increased, the Taskforce was able to resolve her case in one hour, which was bittersweet to Gloria, who, since losing her job and the tribunal case, had subsequently not been able to work.

In the review, Gloria touches on how the scandal has been detrimental to her mental health and finances. Since the ordeal, she has had to pawn rings to pay for items and visited her doctor on a number of occasions with stress-related problems and depression. Today Gloria claims unemployment benefits and stays at home though nearly lost her house a number of times. 

Gloria’s story is testament to the wider bureaucratic and systemic oppression that targeted the Windrush generation and still affects immigrants thereafter. Today, two years since the scandal, the recommendations of Wiliam’s Review are still under consideration. 

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has promised a systemic reform of the Home Office, citing in a Commons statement that the government is committed to introduce a new Home Office mission statement based on “fairness, humanity, openness, diversity and inclusion”. Her response was met with criticism. The Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, criticised the Government for only compensated “just 60 people in its first year of operation”. 

Such a revelation highlights the slow progress in compensating those affected by the Windrush scandal, which up until now exacerbated the lack of trust between the Windrush community and the government. Only 221 out of 1,392 claims have been processed according to Home Office statistics, not factoring the 35 claims that had been rejected since the government launching the scheme in April last year.  

In response to the criticism Patel said: “I agree: the payments and the way in which payments have been made have been far too slow. I’m not apologising for that at all. I have outlined in my statement that it is right that we treat each individual with the respect and dignity they deserve. These are complicated cases.” She said more than £1m had now been offered in compensation.

The Government also previously said that they would pay up to £200 million in total in compensation yet the total pay-outs received by the Windrush victims collectively amounts to a total of £1.2 million. Meanwhile, the deportations still continue.

In February 2020, despite public outcry against the Windrush Scandal of 2018, 17 “criminals” were deported to Jamaica on charter flights under the UK Borders Act. It came as a shock given that there was an Appeal Court order not to deport 25 of the 50 people scheduled to be deported and it is also apparent that such deportations only ended in further tragedy as David Lammy writes in The Guardian, “at least 11 of them died on the streets of foreign countries where they were deported.” 

Needless to say, it is clear that neither the Home Office nor the Home Secretary’s priorities are concerned with “righting the wrongs” of Windrush. But we owe it to the Paulines, Nathaniels and Glorias out there, to ensure that the same bureaucracies that solicited their afflictions does not succeed today.

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