Windrush Day: 75 years on

News

22 June 2023 is the 75th anniversary of Windrush. This blog post will explain the history of Windrush, and how people in this generation and future generations continue to be harmed by UK Home Office mistakes. Now, the Home Office is trying to make us forget about this time in history, but it is important that we understand it.

Why is it called the ‘Windrush’ scandal?

75 years ago, on 20 June 1948, a ship called the HMT Empire Windrush (often called ‘Windrush’) arrived in the UK. It was carrying people from countries in the Caribbean, who had been invited to the UK to fill labour shortages caused by the second world war. 

This ship later became the name of a government scandal which would affect thousands of people, and continues to affect people today. However, the ‘Windrush generation’ are not just the people who arrived on this ship – they are all the people who arrived in the UK and settled between 1948 and 1971, their children, and their grandchildren. It includes other people from former colonies in Africa and South Asia.

Five years ago, in April 2018, the news broke that the Home Office had made huge mistakes in its treatment of the Windrush Generation.

Legal background

At the point at which the ship arrived in the UK, Commonwealth citizens living in the UK had indefinite leave to remain. 

The Commonwealth consists of 56 countries in a union, and makes up almost a third of the global population. Many of the countries in the Commonwealth were previously in the British Empire (such as India), and others have chosen to join (such as Rwanda). The Commonwealth shows how Britain’s colonial past continues to this day. 

Indefinite leave to remain means that you will be legally resident in the UK without any immigration restrictions. Therefore, people in this Windrush generation had legal status and were allowed to stay.

What was the Windrush scandal?

Despite the fact that people in the Windrush generation had legal status, many had no documents to prove their legal status. ‘Landing cards’ which showed that people had arrived on a ship, such as the HMT Empire Windrush, had been destroyed by the Home Office. 

This meant that people who had been living and working in the UK had no paperwork to prove their legal status. In one case, a man who had been brought to the UK at the age of 6 tried to visit Jamaica to visit family. When he tried to return, he was refused entry. He was then forced to spend 13 years in Jamaica, a country he had not lived in since he was 6 years old. He was destitute (this means unable to meet his daily living needs, or homeless) for most of that time.

Other people in the Windrush generation were fired from their jobs as they did not have any documents to prove their legal status in the UK. Some were told that they needed to provide a document to cover every year of their residence in the UK, which was an impossible task. 

Some were detained, and many were threatened with deportation and deported to countries they had no ties to.

These problems were largely caused by the Home Office’s hostile environment policy, which was formally introduced in 2012. The hostile environment is made up of several policy and legal rules which are designed to make staying in the UK as difficult as possible for immigrants. It involves giving doctors, nurses, landlords, employers, police, teachers, bankers and public service workers the job of checking someone’s immigration status before providing them with a service. 

This meant that for the Windrush generation, the hostile environment resulted in exclusion from many areas of public life, with terrible consequences. People who didn’t ‘look’ British (for example, people who are not white) were questioned and asked to prove their legal status which they simply did not have, because the Home Office had never given them these documents when it granted them their legal status. 

What has the Home Office done about it?

When the scandal was revealed, the Home Office was forced to acknowledge that it made mistakes. In March 2020, the government started a ‘Lessons Learned’ review. In the report, the author said that the hostile environment policy needed to be urgently reviewed, and that the Home Office should be reformed (this means changed). It also introduced a compensation scheme for the victims in April 2019.

Tragically, many people in the Windrush generation have died without receiving the compensation they were entitled to. There is also no legal aid available for these applications for compensation. Windrush Justice Clinic and Justice have called for legal representation for people to navigate the scheme, as the application form for compensation is 50 pages long. On the fourth annual Windrush Day in 2022, only 7% of those affected have been given compensation. This is a tiny fraction of the people affected. 

It is important to note that there have been changes to who can apply for compensation. For example, family members who had to support someone from the Windrush generation who couldn’t prove their lawful status can also apply for compensation.

What is happening now? 

The government’s commitment to real change after the Windrush scandal has been shown to be lots of empty promises but no action. The part of the Home Office responsible for its reform has been quietly closed. The government has also just announced there is a new coin to commemorate the Windrush generation. The introduction of a new coin does not do justice to the suffering it has caused. 

The hostile environment continues to affect many people in the UK, and people in all sectors of society are still made to do the job of border guards.

However, Windrush is also a story which shows the power of campaigning. People have spoken out about their experiences of injustice, and shared their stories. Praxis are hosting a photo exhibition with portraits of people affected, which you can see here

The singer Olivia Dean has just released a new song about her Grandma who came to the UK at the age of 18 in the Windrush Generation, called ‘Carmen’. She sings ‘You transplanted a family tree and a part of it grew into me’. You can listen to it, and read the lyrics here.

Windrush must be properly understood, so that these mistakes do not happen again. The Home Office must be held accountable for its mistakes and give justice to those bearing the brunt of those mistakes.

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