by I. Chothia
As October marks Black History Month in the UK, I thought it would be fitting to remind staff and students about the Windrush Scandal, which brought to light shocking incidents of dehumanisation and systemic failures against people of Caribbean descent in the UK.
When people talk about the ‘Windrush generation’, they are usually talking about a group of individuals who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1973. The name comes from one of the first large group of arrivals who disembarked a ship called HMT Empire Windrush on 21 June 1948.
Why were large groups of people coming to the UK?
Well, this was shortly after the war. Britain had lost many people to the war and many sectors were affected by the post-war labour shortage. As a result, people from some of Britain’s colonies were invited to the UK to take up jobs in the newly formed NHS and other sectors. What’s more, because these individuals arrived from British colonies that were not independent, they were unequivocally British citizens and would go on to become the very fibre of Britain’s existence; this is important to remember.
Shortly after 2012, thousands of people began receiving notices of deportation; the details of the letters raised more questions than they answered, but the finality of the message was clear, that the recipients were in the country illegally and that they were being deported. To understand why this was happening, we need to go back to 2010, when David Cameron started his tenure as Prime Minister. Cameron promised that the government would drastically reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the UK. A big problem with this was that the government had severely overestimated the number of people who had illegally settled in the UK. Rather than tell everyone this, a decision was made, simply to meet the unreachable quotas, to target and ultimately deport thousands of people.
In 2012, Theresa May, as Home Secretary, declared that her aim was to “create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. The voices preaching these policies grew louder, special divisions were created with a sole purpose to search and detain, and those decades-old arrivals, who never in a million years would think they would ever be targeted, were targeted. Thus ensued the Windrush scandal.
The Windrush scandal began to surface in 2017. Shortly before this, Guardian journalist, Amelia Gentleman, began investigating and reporting on the experiences of hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, who had been wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights. Victims of the Windrush scandal were belligerently targeted, forcibly detained and mercilessly separated from their families. Countless more, despite illness, were too afraid to access healthcare in fear of detainment and deportation.
These were not recent arrivals to the UK. By then, some had been in the country for over 60 years. However, as many of the Windrush generation had arrived as children on their parents’ passports (when children didn’t need passports), many lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK. They had made their home in the UK, and without the luxury to be able to travel, hadn’t felt the need to apply for a passport. The Home Office hadn’t kept a record of those whom had been granted leave to remain; what’s more, migrant landing cards and records were conveniently destroyed in 2010 under the Data Protection Act; despite this, the Home Office placed the burden of proof on individuals, meaning unless people could categorically prove that they had been in the country since 1973, they had no right to remain in the UK. This created an impossible, burdensome task for people who had not only done anything wrong, but had dedicated years of invaluable contributions to a country they now called home. Many had little to no recollection of what life was like before they came to the UK. With no one to hear their plight, a terrible injustice was being committed and the individuals were fighting a losing battle.
Despite hostile opposition, the government was brought to task and eventually admitted its failings with regards to the Windrush generation.
The Windrush Compensation Scheme was established in April 2019 but by the end of September 2021, only a fifth of those eligible had come forward, and only a quarter of these had received compensation. Some have died before receiving any compensation.
Since 2018, Windrush Day is commemorated annually on 22 June.
A model of the MV Empire Windrush, featured in the London 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony.
In 2019, the National Theatre put on a production of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, a story of first-generation Jamaican immigrants.
In June 2020, the BBC broadcast a feature-length drama inspired by the Windrush scandal.
To read more about this ongoing issue, I strongly recommend reading The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman, copies of which you can find in the BCHS library.