In June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked at Dilbury in Essex, carrying hundreds of Caribbean people looking for a new life in Britain after being encouraged by the British Nationality Act of the same year which granted UK citizenship to all peoples of the Empire. These West Indians, keen to contribute to their new home, took up roles in manufacturing, public transport, and the NHS.
The face of Britain was changing: as white families emigrated to Commonwealth countries like Australia, black citizens of developing nations arrived in their tens of thousands each year until 1962. Escaping societal oppression and poverty, and excited by opportunities presented to them by the ‘Mother Country’, the West Indian population in the UK soared to 161,000 by 1961. These people became known as the Windrush Generation.
Fifty years later, the UK Conservative Party were engaged in a battle for political survival, spurred on by public demand for reduced migration, levels of which had increased rapidly since the development of the European Union, but keen to maintain their reputation for economic responsibility. Then-Home Secretary Theresa May adopted a ‘hostile environment’ policy to regain public trust, an act which required citizens from abroad to present documents confirming their right to be in the country in order to obtain health services, accommodation, or employment. High deportation targets were set, and those without the right to remain were encouraged to leave. Because of a lack of official documentation given to those who arrived to Britain as Commonwealth immigrants in the mid-twentieth century, the ‘hostile environment’ created widespread anxiety among the British Windrush community, a fear which later became reality when documents exposed the fact that a potential 7,000 Windrush immigrants had been wrongly deported, with a further 11 dying abroad after deportation.
The scandal sent shockwaves through Westminster and across the country, with the Prime Minister apologising for her role in the deportations, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigning from her post. But it certainly seems as though the government have not lived up to their promise never to allow such a large-scale, immoral mess occur again. After the Brexit referendum of 2016, the EU refused to agree to a mutual agreement with the UK to allow the unaffected right to remain for all EU citizens in the UK and vice versa. Many politicians encouraged the UK government to unilaterally provide this assurance to EU nationals in the UK, but the request was rejected repeatedly. For the UK to be seen to be ‘clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean‘, during the ‘hostile environment’ years, the effect was nonetheless one of racial discrimination and unlawful deportations. Time and again, the UK government gave words of welcome to EU nationals (the intention), but refused to grant practical safeguards (the effect).
EU nationals living in the UK have been forced to apply for settled status, but thousands have been labelled ‘ineligible‘. This leaves them with no option but to either leave, or apply for pre-settled status (which comes with fewer rights). This does not promise the guaranteed right to indefinitely remain, and leaves room for another Windrush-style scandal when the applicants’ pre-settled status expires. Recently, hundreds of despairing EU nationals have even turned to a scheme intended for victims of the Windrush Scandal, which provides them with a physical ID card proving their right to stay. Brexit-supporting Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has said that many of his constituents have been wrongly denied their right to remain. If our new government does not start to provide those EU nationals a little more dignity and respect, there is a high risk of another Windrush Scandal on the horizon