Seventy years ago, the “Windrush generation” began to arrive in Britain. When the nation was rebuilding itself after the second world war, a call for help was put out to the Caribbean countries. They eagerly responded and the ship Empire Windrush first docked in June 1948 with almost 500 people aboard from Jamaica and Trinidad. By 1971, half a million people from Commonwealth nations had settled in the UK and become an intrinsic part of life.
These families were the vanguard of what is now Britain’s multicultural society; an example of the practical and cultural benefits of immigration. That was until the post-Brexit eagerness to clamp down on migration. The status of the children of the Windrush generation has been put into doubt. These people, who have lived in Britain all their lives but were never formally naturalised, have been denied healthcare, lost their jobs and threatened with deportation.
This is not who we are. Britain is supposed to be a tolerant and welcoming society. This is not how hard-working people, who devoted their lives to the wellbeing of the nation, should be treated. Today the world is looking to see the degree to which the UK will remain open after leaving the EU. The treatment of the Windrush families is hardly encouraging.
Only when threatened with a public outcry and embarrassment at this week’s meeting of the Commonwealth heads of governments did the UK government change its position. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, apologised in the House of Commons yesterday, shifting the onus away from individuals proving residency. But the situation remains legally fraught and Ms Rudd still has to follow through on such sweeping promises.
Nobody in the government comes out of this affair with credit. The initial response of Theresa May and her ministers was hopelessly out of touch. The prime minister — who once said she would create a “ hostile environment” for illegal migrants — declined to meet representatives from 12 Caribbean countries. It has even been suggested that some Windrush children have been mistakenly deported. This is what happens when heartless policymaking collides with hapless implementation.
Despite Ms Rudd’s latest assurances, there are still fundamental questions to be addressed. Blame for the Windrush fiasco must first lie with the Home Office — a department once described as “not fit for purpose” by a former Labour home secretary. Mrs May was in charge for more than six years and widely considered a success in terms of police reform, internal security and combating terrorism. Her legacy on immigration looks less impressive.
Under Ms Rudd’s leadership, the Home Office has become increasingly rudderless. Whether dealing with increasing street violence or the UK’s future immigration policy, there is an increasing sense that the department is falling short.
This does not bode well, given that the UK is due to exit the EU in less than a year, and by 2021, the UK is set to make a clean break with the bloc. The Home Office will be wholly responsible for the country’s immigration and border policies.
The treatment of the Windrush families sends a troubling signal to the 3m concerned EU citizens in the UK. Mrs May has insisted their rights will be protected after Brexit.
The Windrush cases — and the Home Office’s record — adds an element of doubt at an inopportune moment. If Britain wants to uphold its reputation as an open and liberal country, an injection of compassion into its attitudes on immigration is long overdue.
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