Thu | Dec 7, 2023

The ‘Windrush Scandal’ in a nutshell – Still very much a vexatious issue

Published:Friday | September 29, 2023 | 12:08 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer
Roland Houslin, a British-born Jamaican who was denied entry to the UK after living in Jamaica for two years.
Roland Houslin, a British-born Jamaican who was denied entry to the UK after living in Jamaica for two years.
The Empire Windrush, the vessel that took hundreds of Caribbean people to the UK in 1948.
The Empire Windrush, the vessel that took hundreds of Caribbean people to the UK in 1948.

THE BUILT environments of London and other cities in the United Kingdom (UK) were significantly destroyed during World War II which lasted from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945. Many Caribbean people, regarded as British citizens living in the colonies, fought and died in the war. The destruction in the UK was so severe that there was a significant labour shortage for reconstruction after the war.

The government needed workers to offset the shortage and rebuild the economy. In 1948 the British Nationality Act gave people from colonies the right to live and work in Britain. At the time, people in the colonies, indirectly affected by the war, were struggling economically. The high unemployment rate in the colonies then could be reduced by the significant number of job vacancies in the UK.

On June 22, 1948, 1,027 people from the Caribbean arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush at the port at Tilbury in Essex. Hundreds were Jamaicans (about 500), but there were others from Trinidad, St Lucia, Grenada and Barbados. They and others who migrated to the UK on other ships up to 1971 have come to be known as the ‘Windrush Generation’.

They got jobs as manual workers, drivers, cleaners, nurses in the newly established National Health Scheme, etc. Entire families eventually uprooted themselves and resettled in the ‘Mother Country’. Their lives were forever changed in many ways. Paramount in the many challenges they faced was racism, which in many cases broke their spirits and spiralled them into all sorts of emotional, mental and psychological turmoil in a place where the harsh British winter weather was already merciless.

Since they went as British subjects, many of these people did not secure documentation to say they have a right to live in the UK, even though they had worked and toiled, some in government institutions, and have paid their taxes. And since 1971, the Immigration Act gave Commonwealth citizens living in the UK indefinite leave to remain, the permanent right to live and work in the UK. This included the Windrush Generation, and people from other former British colonies in south Asia and Africa.

In April 2018, it was revealed that the UK Home Office had kept no records of those granted permission to stay in the UK, and had not issued the paperwork they needed to confirm their status. It had also destroyed landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants, in 2010. Those affected were unable to prove they were in the country legally and were prevented from accessing healthcare, work and housing.

The issue has eventually come to be known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’, which exposed the destruction of the lives of hundreds of people. Its evolution started when it was discovered that people with a right to live in the UK were being wrongfully detained, deported, and denied access to work and healthcare. Many were caught off guard when they attempted to return to Britain after spending time in their countries of origin, or their parents’ countries of origin.

It is still a most vexatious issue that is not going away any time soon as it is entangled in a complex historical, political, racist, social, and broken-familial web. A case in point is Roland Houslin, who was born in the UK in the early 1960s. He moved to Jamaica with his parents in 1973, but when the family attempted to return to the UK in 1975 they were blocked because they had been out of the country for two years.

The ‘two-year rule’ was carried through the Immigration Act of 1971, which was enforced in 1973. Houslin eventually returned to the UK in 1988, his mother in 2003, but she “had to leave due to the hostile environment” he shared with The Gleaner recently. His father, who died in 2021, was never allowed to travel to the UK, again.

Then prime minister, Theresa May, apologised to Caribbean leaders for the harsh treatment meted out to the victims. An inquiry was set up and a compensation scheme established in 2019. The inquiry made 30 recommendations, including a full Home Office review of the UK’s “hostile environment” immigration policy, the appointment of a migrants’ commissioner, and the establishment of a race advisory board.

Yet, in January 2023, Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced that the Home Office was dropping three of the commitments, viz, to appoint a migrants’ commissioner responsible for “speaking up for migrants and those affected by the system directly or indirectly”, to give the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration new powers, and to hold events with people affected to “listen and reflect on their stories”.

In 2021, Houslin applied to the compensation scheme, along with his elderly mother, but their claims were declined due to “insufficient evidence”. There is no provision in the compensation scheme for applicants who were born in the UK and were subsequently locked out of the UK. But Houslin has not given up.