In 1968, eight-year-old Dexter Bristol left the British colony of Grenada to join his mother, Sentina, in the UK where she was working as an NHS nurse as a British-subject passport holder. Both Dexter and his mother were considered British citizens and lived in the UK as such, claiming social benefits, working and paying taxes. Bristol lived the remainder of his life in the UK, but in 2016, he had his benefits cut off as he could not prove he had the right to be in the UK. In 2017, he was removed from his cleaning job when the employers learned he had no passport. He tried to get new work, but no-one would hire him due to his lack of documentation. With no money coming in, Bristol was living in destitution. Within a few months, Bristol collapsed outside his home and died.
This is what is happening with immigrants in the UK right now.
Many people from the British colonies who moved, lived and rebuilt the UK after World War II are being told they have no legal status to be in the country, even if they migrated prior to their homeland’s independence. Bristol, and many like him, are known as the ‘Windrush’ generation who arrived on UK shores from British colonies such as Jamaica, Grenada, and Barbados between 1948 and 1971. The name derives from the ship that brought the first migrants in 1948 – MV Empire Windrush and it is unclear how many people arrived during that time as many were children traveling on their parent’s passports, but it is believed to be in their thousands. The influx of migrants ended in 1971 when the Immigration Act was introduced. It gave the Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK the right to remain.
However, in 2010, the “hostile environment policy” was introduced by then-Home Secretary, Theresa May and the Home Office. Its aim was to make it as difficult and hostile in the UK as possible for people without leave to remain (e.g. illegal immigrants) in hope that they would “voluntarily leave”.
With the Windrush generation, the Home Office did not keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue any paperwork confirming it, so when the “hostile environment policy” was implemented, it became difficult for the Windrush arrivals to prove their legality in the UK. Most of the Windrush migrants had arrived before their home countries gained independence from the UK, so they and others were not incorrect in believing they were British citizens and many of them were minors, traveling on the passports of their parents.
The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave a citizen of the United Kingdom and its Colonies status and the right to settle in the UK, to everyone who was at the time a British subject by virtue of being born in a British colony. But the lack of documentation means those of the Windrush generation (who are now of retirement age) cannot work, be treated medically under the NHS, claim benefits or even remain in the UK.
But it is important to note that this has been going on longer than the British people initially believed. While the scandal gained national notoriety in 2018 resulting in a double public apology by the Prime Minister, the resignation of the Home Secretary and a promise of citizenship documents with waived fees and compensation, it doesn’t change or make it easier for the estimated 160 Windrush citizens who have been wrongfully deported or detained, according to Home Office reports.
And while the country is currently caught up in the final negotiations for the UK to leave the European Union, the Windrush scandal has been pushed to the side and the appalling treatment of the victims is being ignored.
But those of who arrived from the Caribbean are found to not be the only ones who are suffering as 30% of those who are being forwarded to the Windrush taskforce (a group set up by the British Government to help with those with limited documentation or evidence of residency) are from “other nationalities.” This includes people from European countries including France and Germany and other Commonwealth countries such as Nigeria and Australia.
The scandal leaves many questions and doubt. If the UK can do this to its own people, what about the European citizens living and working in the UK? What will happen to them when the UK leaves the European Union? Could they also be declared illegal years down the line and be terminated from their jobs, unable to claim social benefits or health care and be deported back to a country they haven’t lived in for years?
Myself, as a child of one immigrant parent and the grandchild of immigrant grandparents from a Commonwealth country, could I also lose my status as a British citizen if the Home Office declares my grandparents illegal?
The rebuilding of the UK after the atrocities of World War II was an open invitation to the Commonwealth to settle in the UK but the scandal regarding Windrush will forever stain British foreign policy and must never be forgotten.