Review of the Year 2018

Windrush: The biggest political scandal of the last 12 months had nothing to do with Brexit

British citizens being deported and detained led to criticism of the ‘hostile environment’ policy developed by Theresa May, as May Bulman reports

Friday 21 December 2018 13:27 GMT
The Empire Windrush took immigrants to the UK in 1948
The Empire Windrush took immigrants to the UK in 1948 (Getty)

A minister forced to resign, a government department in disarray, hundreds of people wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement. The Windrush crisis is arguably the biggest non-Brexit political scandal of the year, and it is a story that keeps on giving.

The issue first came to light in April when a meeting at the Jamaican High Commission in London saw politicians, diplomats and campaigners demand that ministers provide an immediate remedy for a “developing situation” – in which elderly Caribbean immigrants were being barred from working, refused access to government services, losing access to welfare benefits and, in the worst cases, being detained and deported in error.

The human impact was plain to see. A woman who had been in Britain for 50 years was thrown into a detention centre; a man who had worked and paid taxes for more than three decades was charged £54,000 for cancer treatment; a father who arrived as a child in 1961 lost his job as a special needs teaching assistant. Such mistreatment of immigrants whose parents were welcomed to Britain in the 1960s to help country’s post-war redevelopment sparked sustained public outrage – and it forced the Home Office to act.

Within a week of the meeting, both the home secretary Amber Rudd and prime minister Theresa May issued personal apologies for the “anxiety caused” by the treatment of Commonwealth nationals who arrived in the UK as children as far back as the 1940s. Ministers may have hoped that would be the end of it – but it certainly wasn’t.

In the weeks that followed, a series of embarrassing contradictions and U-turns played out. Ms Rudd claimed the Home Office had no deportation targets – only to admit less than 24 hours later that some immigration officers did use targets for the number of people they should deport. She resigned days later, admitting she had “inadvertently misled” MPs.

The government’s specialist taskforce has succeeded in resolving hundreds of Windrush cases – but a promised compensation scheme is not yet in place. Sajid Javid, the new home secretary, has renamed the hostile environment a “compliant” one, but the policies themselves haven’t changed.

Then the true scale of the crisis began to emerge. The Home Office announced that more than 60 people had potentially been wrongfully deported or removed from the UK – countering previous claims there was “no evidence” any individuals had been deported. The embarrassment deepened further when the department revised its estimate to suggest more than 83 Windrush citizens could have been removed.

Crucially, there was a gradual realisation that this mistreatment of rightful British citizens was not an isolated error. The range of people affected began to widen, and it was soon clear that the problem spanned beyond just those who had come to the UK from the Caribbean. The Independent revealed that nearly half of overseas enquiries to the government’s specialist taskforce were from countries outside the West Indies, and later that citizens from more than 60 countries had been referred.

Unsurprisingly, broader scepticism of Home Office immigration policies, which had been bubbling under the surface, suddenly became very vocal. It became clear that behind this scandal was a policy Theresa May had brought in as home secretary in 2012, as part of her bid to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands. The self-proclaimed desire to create a “hostile environment” placed responsibility and power with agencies such as landlords and NHS staff effectively to carry out immigration checks, with the aim of making living in the UK as difficult as possible for people without legal status.

The problem – and what the Windrush scandal drew attention to – was that the measures not only generated hostility towards illegal immigrants, but came to reflect a broader rancour towards migrants in the UK. What’s more, historical failure to retain people’s records (such as the boarding passes of Windrush citizens), coupled with an inevitable lack of knowledge about immigration regulations among nurses, landlords and employers, meant the tactic of creeping immigration enforcement into day-to-day life was repeatedly targeting people who had full rights to be in the country.

As we reach the end of the year that brought the Windrush scandal, how much has changed? The government’s specialist taskforce has succeeded in resolving hundreds of Windrush cases – but many are still pending, and a promised compensation scheme is not yet in place. Sajid Javid, the new home secretary, renamed the hostile environment a “compliant” one, but the policies themselves haven’t changed. In actual fact, there is a continuing stream of stories in the media about people who have been wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement authorities.

With Brexit on the horizon, and the immigration status of 3 million European Union nationals in Britain about to change, the apparent reluctance among ministers to bring about meaningful reform, in light of Windrush, remains a concern for many. The government may hope the worst is over, but the general consensus among charities and lawyers well-versed in the issue is that cracks have formed in Ms May’s self-proclaimed hostile environment – and they are spreading fast.

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