The dehumanising treatment of the Windrush generation by the Home Office needs to be challenged, writes Marcus Stow
Racist graffiti, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Black Cultural Archives.

What would you say if I told you of a state that retrospectively enacts policies that demand grandparents who have lived there for decades prove their identity, or face the threat of deportation or imprisonment? Am I talking about dystopian fiction? Some fascist regime from the distant past, perhaps?

Wrong and wrong again. This is modern Britain. Although perhaps it helps to add the context that we’re talking about African and Caribbean senior citizens. Not so surprising now?

In recent months there have been a disturbing number of cases of African and Caribbean elders being treated appallingly by the home office and benefits agencies. Many of these people arrived in the UK as British citizens when there was free movement from Commonwealth countries. Most moved, and have been happily working, living and raising families in the UK before the 1973 Immigration Act, which gave populations already settled in Britain indefinite leave to remain.

Now they’ve been sucked into the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May, demanding immigrants produce documentary evidence proving entitlement to live in the UK and access healthcare and benefits. While decent treatment of immigrants should not be warranted by their national contribution, this is especially appalling treatment for the Windrush generation who saved Britain.

Celebrations of 70 years since the Windrush docked will be of no comfort to 61-year-old Paulette Wilson who after living in Britain for fifty years was told she was an illegal immigrant and was detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and almost forced on a plane to Jamaica.

Paulette is not alone. The “crime” of not being able to produce a British passport led to Albert Thompson, who has been evicted and is now being denied free NHS treatment and told to pay £54,000 for chemotherapy by the Royal Marsden hospital. Albert has lived in London for 44 years since arriving from Jamaica as a teenager.

Petition to support Albert Thompson

There is no amnesty or compassion for those unfortunate enough to be sleeping on the street either. Instead of helping 71-year-old Eleanor Rogers get back on her feet after she was found homeless, she was told she could be sent back to Sierra Leone due to a lack of paperwork – despite having lived and worked in Britain since 1966.

Anthony Bryan’s case went  far as having his flight booked for a forced deportation flight to Jamaica. He arrived in the UK to join his mother aged 8, and after 52 years in the UK was told he was in the country illegally. Length of time spent in the UK has absolutely no bearing on the Home Office’s inexcusably inhumane decisions. This is also especially evident in the case of Elwaldo Romeo, who moved from Antigua to the UK nearly sixty years ago and is now being told that he is “liable to be detained”.

For many, issues arise when accessing benefits they are entitled to. Fifty-seven-year-old Sarah O’Connor was told by benefits agency to prove she was in the country legally, leaving her facing bankruptcy. She does not have the means to apply for a passport.

The government likes to talk about the contribution of NHS staff but this hasn’t helped Judy Griffith, 63, a hospital care worker who’s been in the UK for fifty years (she came as a British citizen) when she found herself unable to start a new job after her Barbadian passport with a “right to remain” sticker was stolen.

Contributing to society didn’t help Michael Braithwaite – a 66-year-old special needs teaching assistant, who lost his job after his local authority ruled, he needed to submit proof that he had the right to live in the UK (following publicity, Michael’s papers have now been approved). He told Channel 4 news, “I feel like an alien, I’ve had sleepless nights and fears of a knock at the door”.

How have our elders ended up in these situations? The seeds of this hostile environment were sown as far back as 1971, as explained by human rights organisation Liberty’s 2015 briefing for MPs on the issue of immigration detention.

“Powers to administratively detain were first set out in the Immigration Act 1971… the Act reversed the principle of habeas corpus, removing the onus from the state to justify the deprivation of liberty, and introducing administrative detention for those subject to deportation. In the intervening decades, the use of detention has evolved from a mechanism designed to enforce removal or examination, to a free-standing immigration power routinely exercised for administrative convenience.”

More recently, political and right-wing media outrage about so-called “health tourism” has led to rules that the NHS is bound to charge patients not deemed to be residents in the UK. This was a moral panic about spending that accounts for only 0.3% of the NHS annual budget and has led to medical crowdfunding pages being set up for citizens in a similar situation to Albert Thompson.

Furthermore, there also lies the impact of racism. Elders who are seen as “classically British’ are afforded the luxury of perceived frailty and assumed citizenship – one older white British woman told me that she did not have a single piece of paper to prove her identity and had never been denied healthcare or had her residency questioned.

Meanwhile, African and Caribbean seniors are suffering the violence of lost employment, homelessness, detention, deportation, poverty and stress-related illnesses inflicted upon them, simply because they can’t meet modern-day requirements for proof of nationality, implemented retrospectively with little publicity and no community outreach.

Nazek Ramadan is Director of Migrant Voice, an organisation that works on migrant rights and amplifies migrant voices in the media and public life to counter xenophobia, said:

“We are sadly not surprised that another group is now being affected by the government’s ‘hostile environment’. It is shameful that they should be treated this way when they came to this country as citizens of Great Britain, built their lives and homes here. It is time for the Home Office and Government to sort this out.”

“I feel like an alien, I’ve had sleepless nights and fears of a knock at the door”

There have been calls for an immigration amnesty for the Windrush generation. Guy Hewitt, the Barbados High Commissioner in London stated that “Missions from the regions are working with the Home Office to avoid people being forcibly removed back to islands they don’t recognise.”

While the papers are full of EU migrants’ woes following Brexit, with the notable exception of the fantastic work of Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian there’s been comparatively little coverage until very recently on the wave of violence government policy has brought to our most vulnerable of groups.

This hostile environment seems designed to appeal to populist and racist sentiments as an attempt to capture right-wing voters for the Tories. As a result, older generations of British people of colour that have contributed years to this country are either being deported and detained.

Thanks to @MigrantVoice and @Rebelyarns for their contributions to this article. More information about the Windrush movement can be found here.

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Marcus Stow is an IT Manager from East London of Bajan and English parentage, he has also written about LGBT issues at The Queerness. You can usually find him giving opinions on race, LGBT issues, gentrification and Whitney Houston @marcusjdl.


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3 thoughts on “The “hostile environment” that puts grandparents behind bars

  1. A large part of the problem is down to the lack of paperwork considered to be needed for any nation that declared independence prior to 1981, which means that anyone who didn’t deal with it at the time is at least on paper here illegally. This doesn’t mean that a little common sense and humanity should not be employed. It’s nothing to do with what bigots call racism,, we are members of the human race, but historical failures on both sides.

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