Britain celebrates Windrush Day, honouring a generation of Caribbean immigrants who moved to the UK in the late 1940s at the invitation of the government.
In recent years though, the British government’s treatment of those individuals — known as the Windrush generation after the Empire Windrush passenger liner that brought some of them across the Atlantic — and their descendants have been the subject of a massive scandal.
Those arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries have been labelled the Windrush generation.
This is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.
The ship carried 492 passengers – many of them children.
The people who became known as the Windrush generation were invited to Britain to lay roads, drive buses, clean hospitals and nurse the sick, helping to rebuild the country after the devastation of World War II.
They came to symbolise the seismic demographic changes in Britain that started after World War II and continued into the late 20th century, as hundreds of thousands of people arrived from former British colonies, from around the Commonwealth.
It is unclear how many people belong to the Windrush generation, since many of those who arrived as children travelled on parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents – but they are thought to be in their thousands.
There are now 500,000 people resident in the UK who were born in a Commonwealth country and arrived before 1971 – including the Windrush arrivals – according to estimates by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.
The influx ended with the 1971 Immigration Act, when Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain.
After this, a British passport-holder born overseas could only settle in the UK if they firstly had a work permit and, secondly, could prove that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK.
A British scandal
In April 2018, a political scandal of such significance emerged that it almost took people’s minds off of Brexit for a period of time. It was a meeting at the Jamaican High Commission in London that saw politicians, diplomats and campaigners demand that ministers provide an immediate remedy for a “developing situation” in which, due to changes in the immigration system, Caribbean immigrants were being deemed “illegal immigrants”.
The Windrush Scandal saw hundreds of Caribbean immigrants living and working in the UK wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement as a result of the government’s “hostile environment” policies.
As well as those who were deported, an unknown number were detained, lost their jobs or homes, or were denied benefits or medical care to which they were entitled. A number of long-term UK residents were refused re-entry to the UK, and a larger number were threatened with immediate deportation by the Home Office.
As a result, many elderly people were suddenly being barred from working, refused access to government services, and lost access to welfare benefits.
This meant that elderly Caribbean immigrants were being denied access to NHS healthcare, losing their jobs and even being threatened with deportation.
In some cases, the people from the Windrush generation were even detained and deported.
Linked by commentators to the “hostile environment policy” instituted by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, the scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary in April 2018, and the appointment of Sajid Javid as her successor. The scandal also prompted a wider debate about British immigration policy and Home Office practice.
The scandal came to public attention as a result of a campaign mounted by Caribbean diplomats to the UK, British parliamentarians and charities, and an extended series of articles in The Guardian newspaper.
The March 2020 independent Windrush Lessons Learned Review by the inspector of constabulary concluded that Theresa May’s Home Office showed an inexcusable “ignorance and thoughtlessness”, and that what had happened had been “foreseeable and avoidable”. It further found that immigration regulations were tightened “with complete disregard for the Windrush generation”, and that officials had made “irrational” demands for multiple documents to establish residency rights.
Prime minister at the time, Theresa May, apologised for their treatment. An inquiry was announced and a compensation scheme established.
The inquiry, which released its report in March this year, said that the scandal was “foreseeable and avoidable”. The report criticised “a culture of disbelief and carelessness” in the Home Office.
The inquiry made 30 recommendations including :
- the Home Office should set up a full review of the UK’s “hostile environment” immigration policy
- the appointment a migrants commissioner
- establishment of a race advisory board
The Windrush Compensation Scheme was established in April 2019. By the end of March 2020, 1,275 had applied for financial compensation, with 60 people receiving payments totalling £363,000.
This is some way short of the 15,000 claims expected to be lodged worth an estimated £200m. The deadline for applications is April 2023.
A separate taskforce aimed to give individuals correct documentation, with 2,500 receiving it since April 2018.
Some of the most notable cases included a man who had worked and paid taxes for more than 30 years and was charged £54,000 for cancer treatment and a woman who had been living in Britain for five decades and was thrown into a detention centre.
How have the government’s actions been received?
Wendy Williams, the author of the inquiry report, has warned there is a “grave risk” of similar failings happening again if the government fails to implement its recommendations.
The government has three months before it is required to respond to them, but has indicated the want to “right those wrongs”.
Campaigners have also criticised the speed at which the compensation scheme has been rolled out, as well as the size of the payments.
For example, an individual would receive £10,000 for being deported, or £500 for denial of access to higher education. Individuals would receive £250 for every month of homelessness.
Former Immigration Secretary Caroline Nokes has said that while it’s true that the flat payment for deportation is set at £10,000, it would also be combined with other payments such as loss of earnings.
Events are held annually to commemorate the Windrush’s arrival 72 years ago, and the subsequent wave of immigration from Caribbean countries.
Windrush Day is commemorated on 22 June – the first being observed in 2018. The lead-up to the event is marked with exhibitions, church services and cultural events.
A model of the MV Empire Windrush featured in the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games, while in 2019, the National Theatre put on a production of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, a story first-generation Jamaican immigrants.
In June, the BBC broadcast a feature-length drama inspired by the Windrush scandal. It features one man’s experience of wrongful detention by the Home Office and threats of deportation.