After the Windrush scandal – fight for citizenship rights for all

By Dave Stockton

FIVE HUNDRED people, a large number of them of black Caribbean heritage, held a noisy rally outside Downing Street on Saturday 5 May, before taking the road and marching off to the Home Office, a mile away. “Windrush people here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May!” they chanted.

The continuing anger on the streets is testimony to sense of betrayal felt by many black and ethnic minority Britons by the callous policies designed to create a “hostile environment” for all migrants, legal or “illegal”, and by extension all people of colour.

The scandal concerning the systematic harassment of people who came to Britain from the Caribbean back in the 1948 to the 1971 period, and who have worked in our factories, hospitals and public transport services, reached a climax in late April when it was revealed they were being asked to produce decades-old paperwork to prove their right to remain here.

In November it was reported that the Home Office was threatening them  with deportation, if they could not prove their right to remain, even though they came here as young adults or minors accompanying or joining their parents, who had been recruited by the UK government to fill jobs after World War II. Especially quick to take up the offer were former servicemen and women who had served in Britain’s armed forces only a few years previously.

None of them suspected that they had to apply for British citizenship since they had – at school, in the media, in the plethora of images of the British Empire that surrounded them – always believed that they were children of the “mother country”. Fast forward 50 or 60 years and now they were being told to go “back” to countries they had never lived in throughout their adult life. Perfidious Albion indeed.

What this could mean in human terms was revealed by Croydon Central Labour MP Sarah Jones, who reported that, among the 450 immigration cases she is dealing with, one involved an elderly lady whose home was raided at dawn by 10 immigration officers, who told her she was going to be deported, because she was here illegally and that she would be taken to a detention centre. “She wasn’t here illegally,” the MP explained.

Worse still it was revealed that disembarkation cards – which could have proved many stories – despite having been kept for decades, had recently (2010) been destroyed. No wonder an enormous wave of anxiety spread throughout the black communities: in London, the Midlands and elsewhere. There are 500,000 people resident in the UK who were born in a Commonwealth country and arrived before 1971.

Up to Amber Rudd’s exposure by the Guardian for “misleading” the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Commons, she and May were still denying that The “Windrush Scandal” (so called after the famous liner that brought the first Jamaican immigrants to Southampton docks in 1948) had any connection to their immigration policies and obfuscating whether or not this department had any targets for removals. Then the Guardian published correspondence which clearly showed Rudd was misrepresenting the truth, in parliamentary language – lying through her teeth, in everyday parlance. Rudd even wrote a letter to the Prime Minister boasting about overachieving on her own target of increasing by 10 per cent the number of deportations (“removals” in the language of a racist who still thinks of black people as cargo).

They also had the misfortune of having to face the embarrassment of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference, convened in London on 16 April. Soon May had to apologise to the heads of Caribbean countries, to the House of Commons, to the media, to the entire Windrush Generation. The Home Office claimed it was scrapping removal targets it had denied having and finally Amber Rudd, a rising star of the Tory Party, was forced to fall on her sword.

May the real culprit

Theresa May, Home Secretary in the 2010-15 Coalition government, and Amber Rudd the latest Home Office boss, are patently responsible for both the 2010 and 2015 government’s vicious stepping up of the expulsion of so-called illegal immigrants. Indeed May was an enthusiast for reducing so-called illegal immigration figures. On 25 May 2012 she gave an interview in the Daily Telegraph in which she said:

“The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”

A former Home Office employee has revealed what this meant. It was decided in 2010 to destroy disembarkation cards, dating back to the 1950s and ’60s. Employees in his department informed managers it was a bad idea, because these were often the only record of a person’s arrival date. Though the plan to destroy them was agreed in February 2010 when Labour’s Alan Johnson was Home Secretary – itself a disgraceful indictment of the Blairite regime – the files were in fact destroyed in October that year, when Theresa May had succeeded him.

It was May who sent advertising vans to patrol the streets of Dagenham, Hounslow and other multicultural areas of north London in July 2013, telling everyone that migrants had to “Go home or face arrest”. It announced (untruthfully, as the Advertising Standards Agency later judged) that there had been “106 arrests in this area” and gave out a hotline to phone or text in details of supposed “illegal” immigrants.

The vans were banned. But only after 11 people had been deported and racists had reported thousands of ethnic minority people who were in fact legally here. But that was May’s calculation in the first place. Play the racist card to ward off the electoral challenge from UKIP.

From around 2013 onwards, the former Home Office employee said, he noticed a change in approach after the announcement of the “hostile environment” policy by May. In 2009 and 2010, managers gave caseworkers and members of his team time to look into cases. Now this stopped.

In 2016, almost 40,000 people were removed from the UK or classified as “departing voluntarily,” after receiving threatening letters. Many more are detained at Britain’s airports and ferry terminals and sent to another country under the “deport first, appeal later” policy.

This is on top of the 3,500 adults, many with their children, languishing in Britain’s deportation centres, without trial and without any time limit to their incarceration. The United Nations condemned this system in 2015, noting that it had led to scores of cases of suicide or attempted suicide.

Figures also show that around 10,000 people are waiting for more than six months for a decision on their asylum claims and, because they are banned from work, are forced to live on an allowance of £37.75 a week.

Labour’s contradictory record

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on May to repeal the 2014 Immigration Act, which imposed requirements on employers, landlords, employers, banks, educational institutions and the NHS to check people’s immigration status. He has the moral high ground for he was one of only six Labour MPs who voted against the Bill – now the Immigration Act 2014 – that opened the way to Windrush style harassment.

But Labour’s earlier disgraceful record on immigration keeps coming back to haunt the party. It seems that Alan Johnson first applied the term “hostile environment” to immigration in a memo and speech when he was Home Secretary.

While the abuses visited on the Windrush generation have shone a light on the vicious racist policies of the Home Office and the state in general, we should not forget that after the Immigration Act of 1971 even more vicious restrictions and denials of citizenship rights was introduced which virtually stopped people coming from the Caribbean and Africa and placed severe restraints on people from South Asia too. Now with Brexit we face similar harassment of European workers who have settled here.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn needs to make it absolutely clear that it will accord full British citizenship to the Windrush generation – indeed to all immigrants who have settled here or who want to live here permanently, paying taxes and contributing to the economic, social and cultural life of the country. Only this can put an end to Britain’s racist and inhumane immigration policy.

The deportations must cease and deportation centres should be closed down. Asylum seekers should receive leave to remain with full rights to social security, housing, healthcare and the right to work, whilst their claims are being considered. No more scapegoating of immigrants – the real enemy and source of austerity are the Tories and the capitalist class they represent.