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Windrush Day 2020 - lessons learned?

22 June 2020

Windrush Day is a time to celebrate the substantial and ongoing contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants, who helped to rebuild the UK after the second world war and who have influenced our social, cultural and political landscape ever since. It is also a time to reflect on righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal and to focus on the fight against racism.

Windrush Day was only established in 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMS Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex. This happened after a successful petition by the campaigner Patrick Vernon.    

Almost all of the Windrush Generation are of black Caribbean origin. Although they were originally asked to come to the UK to as citizens of the UK and colonies, with the same legal rights to live and work in the UK as those born here, on arrival they faced significant race discrimination and limitations on their opportunities, being described in official documents on early Caribbean migration as ‘coloured colonial labour’. Many ended up taking up essential but low-paid jobs in sectors such as healthcare, transport, manufacturing and construction, despite having previously worked in more skilled positions. 

When the Immigration Act 1971 came into force at the beginning of 1973, the Windrush Generation were classified as having the right of abode in the UK and they continue to have the right to live and work in the UK up until now. They were not given any evidence of this status, nor did the Home Office keep records. Some did obtain evidence over time, however many did not. 

Those without evidence of their status started to have their lives turned upside down as initiatives to tackle illegal migration were rolled out over time, and in particular with the implementation by the Government of ‘hostile environment’ measures from 2012. These required (and still require) individuals living in the UK to provide evidence of their lawful immigration status in the context of areas such as employment, accessing accommodation and healthcare, and when consideration is being given to entry to the UK, detention, removal or deportation. The results of these measures were devastating, with people losing their livelihoods and pensions, their homes, their sense of identity and security, and their ability to be with their family. In the case of those denied cancer and other critical healthcare, people literally lost their lives. 

The situation did not receive much attention from the Home Office until April 2018, when the Guardian newspaper ran front page stories on it for two consecutive weeks, sparking a worldwide media response and setting off a chain of events that ultimately forced the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to resign.  A Windrush Taskforce was set up at the Home Office to provide members of the Windrush Generation with free documentary evidence of their status. A review of historical cases was carried out, a hardship fund and compensation scheme were established and an independent review was commissioned to identify key lessons for the Home Office. 

The review by Wendy Williams was published in March this year, and although it falls short of finding institutional racism within the Home Office, the independent reviewer stated that its failings showed an ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism’. 

Windrush Day is important, because aside from being a celebration, it provides an opportunity to reflect on what progress has been made to provide redress to the Windrush Generation following the Windrush scandal, and to renew efforts to ensure the measures put in place are made effective. The Windrush lessons learned review report notes that although the National Audit Office estimated in its report on Windrush that there might be up to 500,000 people in the UK who may have difficulties documenting their status, the Windrush taskforce had only issued documentation to 8,124 people as at September 2019. There had been 1,108 claims but only 36 payments made under the compensation scheme by 31 December 2019, amounting to £62,196. Clearly further substantial work needs to be done. 

Racism in the UK is real and invidious. It affects the perceptions and actions of our parliament, our civil service, our businesses and private individuals. In relation to the Home Office and the Windrush scandal, the independent reviewer found that ‘(t)he department has failed to grasp that decisions in the arena of immigration policy and operations are more likely to impact on individuals and the families of individuals who are BAME, who were not born in the UK, or who do not have British national origins or white British ethnic origins’.  

If real and lasting change is to occur in removing the less favourable treatment and detriments experienced by the BAME members of our society, including the Windrush Generation, it is incumbent on all of us to educate ourselves on the UK’s history and in particular the structural inequalities generated from its colonial past. We must also become more sophisticated in being able to identify and speak out against racism, as well as taking action in our own professional and personal capacities to address it.  

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