Some of those who came legally to the UK as part of the “Windrush generation”, many of whom are now elderly, have lost their jobs, homes, and bank accounts after being unable to demonstrate their legal status. They have been denied NHS services. They have been detained. And it’s likely that some have been deported.
After The Guardian broke the story in late 2017 of grandmother Paulette Wilson who, 50 years after she entered the UK as a child, found herself in immigration detention and facing removal to Jamaica, similar reports began to emerge.
At the time of writing, more than 160,000 people had signed a parliamentary petition for amnesty and compensation for people like Wilson. A letter, signed by 140 MPs, urged the prime minister to guarantee their status.
In a debate in parliament on April 16, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, apologised. She said: “Frankly, some of how they have been treated has been wrong – has been appalling – and I am sorry.”
Forced by the strength of feeling in the country, the government promised to create a task force to resolve the matter. The prime minister finally met with Caribbean officials on April 17 to apologise about the issue. All this came as Commonwealth leaders gathered in London for the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, providing another opportunity to put pressure on the UK to fix the situation and to make amends.
It’s urgent that those affected are returned the rights they have been denied and that compensation is paid. But this is not enough.
Speaking in parliament, Rudd added that:
This is about individuals, and we have heard the individual stories, some of which have been terrible to hear. That is why I have acted.
And it is about individuals, but it’s also part of a bigger picture. For a start, a similar story has affected people born in places across the Commonwealth, both within and outside the Caribbean.
But also, this marks the latest step in a process towards an increasingly “hostile” and brutal UK political and legal environment, which is framed as being about controlling migration. For example, there are key parallels between the change in rhetoric that has led Commonwealth citizens to be threatened with deportation and the rhetoric surrounding the referendum on whether to leave the EU.
In the UK, it has become accepted that policies can be used to “displace” ever new categories of people from everyday life, including from the rule of law. This is a displacement driven by policy, not migration. And it is a worrying trend.
Gradually removing rights
While this process was certainly in motion long before, the 1971 Immigration Act marked an important transition point. More recently, the 1990s saw renewed efforts against irregular immigrants, and the creation of the “bogus asylum seeker” – a phrase which makes no sense. Little by little, people who had travelled to the UK without papers lost access to basic rights.
Amid the debates about the detention of terror suspects without trial, foreign nationals subject to immigration control measures languished indefinitely in privately run detention centres up and down the UK. They didn’t, and still don’t, have the protections of due process, nor are they being held in appropriate conditions with a specified release date. Increasingly, reports suggest they have also been subject to violence, including sexual assault.
As all this continued, even those who thought they would be protected by their internationally recognised refugee status found their situation becoming increasingly difficult in the UK. Many remained without access to work or housing, health care or other support for lengthening periods. Increasing racism and hostility towards minority ethnic and religious groups is part of making life unbearable for some of those who have fled persecution.
A hostile environment
In 2012, home secretary Theresa May set out to “create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants”. Beginning in 2015, new operations scooped up homeless non-citizens for detention and deportation.
This created additional fears for asylum seekers who were hiding in the shadows, terrified of being returned to somewhere that they considered worse than sleeping rough during a British winter. Where asylum seekers were given help, it was increasingly mean. Families were split, accommodation offered was unsanitary, with infestations and intimidation.
In 2017, children with families and connections in the UK, who had been surviving alone in the “jungle” of Calais, were lambasted in the press and their right to protection questioned.
Citizens of other European countries, who arrived in the UK under conditions of free movement and created lives in the country under the reasonable supposition that they could stay forever, were told that their future was uncertain in the wake of the referendum about whether to leave the EU.
The political rhetoric and violent incidents against people speaking European languages in public recall the experiences half a century ago of those who had arrived from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, many of whom within a context of free movement.
All of this continues to this day. And now it is the turn of older men and women, many of whom arrived in the UK as British subjects and never had any reason to suppose that had changed. People who had lived for half a century in Britain suddenly started discovering that their own country was rejecting them. They were being displaced from it without having moved.
Brutality can slither into the rule of law, weave itself through free and fair political institutions, infect the public forum and infiltrate everyday life. But it can be stopped.
If you are worried about your own status or that of someone you know, seek help. If you are not worried about your own status, then you can use your position to help others. You can reach out to neighbours and make sure they are okay. You can volunteer with a local organisation or join a campaign. You can speak to your friends, colleagues, your MP; use your vote if you have one.
It’s time to end the removal of rights of people in the UK in the name of “migration control”.