Ever since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Brexit has often dominated the news, and often seems to be the only news coming out of the UK. As a result, while the eruption of the Windrush scandal has been a major news item in the UK in recent weeks, it seems to have gone largely unnoticed elsewhere. The Windrush scandal is a major political issue though, that threatened the deportation of over 50,000 people of Commonwealth origin, despite them living in the UK for up to 70 years; and has cost one senior minister their position. The Windrush scandal is therefore a clear crisis for both Britain’s domestic and foreign policies – both now and when considering the implications of Brexit.
To understand the Windrush scandal, we must first travel back to 1948, which saw the passing of the British Citizenship Act. The Act declared that any citizen of the UK or its colonies was a “British subject”, allowing citizens from anywhere in the Commonwealth to move to the UK and be welcomed as fellow British nationals. On 22nd June that year, the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury with almost 500 Jamaican passengers. Over 500,000 people moved to the UK from the Commonwealth between 1948 and 1971; and become known as the ‘Windrush Generation’ after the first ship. When freedom of movement ended in 1971, all Commonwealth citizens who were already resident in the UK were allowed to stay under the Immigration Act 1971. However, because they had simply been allowed to enter, and then to stay, many of the Windrush Generation never received any official paperwork signifying their right to be in the UK.
Fast forward to 2013, and Prime Minister David Cameron promised an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership if the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, in an attempt to prevent the party’s Eurosceptic wing from deserting to the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic UK Independence Party. Immigration was therefore forced into the political spotlight. As a result, then-Home Secretary Theresa May announced that she would make the UK a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, making it clear she wanted to introduce a system that would “deport first and hear appeals later”. These ideas ultimately resulted in the Immigration Act 2014, which aimed to deny illegal immigrants access to public services, as well as make it easier to deport them.
While the Immigration Act was aimed at illegal immigrants, over the past few months stories began to surface of members of the Windrush generation being wrongly targeted. Despite having lived legally in the UK for decades, the lack of documentation has made it difficult for them to prove their legal right to stay. Multiple cases arose of citizens being detained and threatened with deportation in a country that they have called home for decades. Others were denied access to services such as healthcare or prevented from re-entering the country from abroad. The bill hasn’t only affected members of the Windrush generation, but also their children, many of whom are now being threatened with deportation to countries they have never been to.
In February, pressure began to build on the government to act when senior Caribbean diplomats urged the British Home Office to be “more compassionate”. Then the story of Albert Thompson broke on 10th March. Thompson was diagnosed with cancer in November but was denied the right to free healthcare, despite living in London for 44 years and paying taxes for over 3 decades. Told that he would be charged £54,000 (which he did not have) if he could not produce a British passport, Thompson felt he was “being left to die”. Last summer, Thompson was also evicted and made homeless for three weeks due to his uncertain immigration status. His story caused public outcry, finally forcing the scandal into the spotlight. However, more cases have continued to emerge.
Petitions supporting the Windrush generation brought the debate to parliament, where a political blame-game has broken out over the scandal. At first, Home Secretary Amber Rudd was criticised for failing to know how many have already been deported or otherwise affected, and it later emerged that Windrush landing cards had been destroyed in 2010, exacerbating the problem. However, Theresa May then caught the Labour Party off-guard by announcing that decision had been taken under Labour in 2009. Former Labour minister Alan Johnson confirmed the decision was taken in 2009 when he was Home Secretary, but that he was not aware of it because the decision was taken by the UK Border Agency, not the Home Office. Nevertheless, the Immigration Act that caused the scandal was one of Theresa May’s policies, and she has known about its impact on the Windrush generation for years.
However, political finger-pointing does little to help the victims of the scandal, and help has been slow to materialise. The government was first criticised for an advice booklet given to those being deported to Jamaica, telling them to “Try to be Jamaican” by putting on a Jamaican accent. Regarding real aid, it took until 21st April for Theresa May to announce “compensation” for victims, but still without clarification of who would receive what. On 23rd April, Amber Rudd finally announced a plan to “right the wrongs” by waiving UK citizenship fees and language tests for the Windrush generation and their families.
Nevertheless, many people have already suffered, and Rudd faced growing calls for her resignation over her handling of the scandal. This included one case where she attempted to deport a key witness to a controversial death in an immigration centre. She finally resigned , after leaked papers revealed that Rudd was aware of deportation targets within the Home Office, despite previously claiming she was not. Theresa May has also admitted to knowing about the targets, drawing more criticism. However, May has continued her attempts to distance herself from the scandal, claiming the scandal has nothing to do with her ‘hostile environment’ policy.
The Windrush scandal is not just a domestic issue with potential international consequences. The scandal damaged relations between the UK and many of its Commonwealth partners and cast a shadow over the recent Commonwealth summit in London despite Theresa May’s apologies. The scandal is not only concerning for Commonwealth countries. The idea of immigrants who came to the UK legally under freedom of movement and then later being wrongfully deported has sparked concern among EU citizens, who worry they could face a similar situation after Brexit.
For some people, the Windrush scandal serves as a warning of unintended consequences that may arise from introducing far-right rhetoric into mainstream politics. This is clearly the opinion shared by David Lammy, a member of parliament born to two Windrush migrants. In a speech that may come to define the Windrush scandal, he declared that “if you lay down with dogs, you get fleas”. Perhaps political leaders everywhere should take note of the Windrush scandal and be careful not to likewise fall into the trappings of dog-whistle politics.