Windrush: Britain's racist hostile state

Movement For Justice protest outside Yarl's Wood immigration prison

Although information about the Home Office’s treatment of long-standing Commonwealth nationals living in Britain had already been trickling into the media, on 16 April the ‘Windrush Scandal’ catapulted to the top of the news. A day earlier, Downing Street had refused a formal diplomatic request made at the meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government to discuss the situation. In response, 140 MPs signed a cross-party letter to the Prime Minister demanding she find a ‘swift resolution’, and Labour’s David Lammy spoke in Parliament of ‘a day of national shame’. Séamus Padraic reports.

Conservative Home Secretary Amber Rudd immediately announced the creation of a team dedicated to ensuring no further ‘Windrush citizens’ would be classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ and promised that none would be deported due to a lack of paperwork. The fake outrage expressed by politicians has varied in form, but the substance has in every case been to reinforce the distinction between the ‘Windrush Generation’, who are ‘citizens’ who have ‘contributed’, and ‘illegal immigrants’ on whom we must ‘bear down’, a phrase used by both Rudd and Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott.

In subsequent days and weeks further details about the scandal have come to light. On 17 April it emerged that landing card slips, in many cases the only documentation confirming the exact date that migrants arrived in Britain, had been destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. It later emerged that the decision had been made in 2009, while the last Labour government was still in power, leading to nauseating tit-for-tat exchanges in Parliament.

On 20 April, The Guardian published a leaked letter from Rudd to Prime Minister Theresa May, dated 30 January 2017, in which Rudd promised that she would oversee the forced or ‘voluntary’ deportation of 10% more people than achieved by May when she was Home Secretary. Five days later, Rudd appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by former Labour Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper* where she denied the existence of deportation targets but admitted that it ‘is correct that I have asked for more removals to take place’.

The next day, it emerged that there were regional targets for removals in force. Claiming that she was previously unaware of them, Rudd admitted that the ‘immigration arm of the Home Office has been using local targets for internal performance management’. The following day The Guardian published a Home Office internal memo dated 21 June 2017 which clearly states that the department had set ‘a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18’, that the department has ‘exceeded our target of assisted returns’ and that progress has been made ‘towards the 10% increased performance on enforced returns, which we promised the Home Secretary earlier this year’. The memo was copied to Rudd.

When in a hole, stop digging! On Sunday 29 April, Rudd resigned and did not appear in the House of Commons on the next day to answer questions. Her replacement Sajid Javid told Parliament on his first day in the new job that when he ‘heard that people who are outstanding pillars of their community were being impacted simply for not having the right documents to prove their legal status in the UK, I thought it could be my mum, my brother, my uncle – even me’. Pledging to ‘do right by’ the Windrush generation, Javid was clear that he disliked the term ‘hostile environment’ – ‘a phrase that is unhelpful and does not represent our values as a country’. He prefers ‘compliant environment’. None of this prevented him from voting at the time for the 2014 Immigration Act, the cornerstone legislation of the ‘hostile environment’.

The ‘hostile environment’

In 2012, then-Home Secretary Theresa May announced her desire to create ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’; to make life as unpleasant as possible in order to encourage ‘voluntary’ returns, by restricting migrants’ access to health care, housing, work, education, banking and even the right to drive, by extending the obligation to enforce immigration controls into more areas of everyday life.

The 2014 Immigration Act requires private landlords and letting agents to check the immigration status of prospective tenants under penalty of a £3,000 fine, and the 2016 Immigration Act made renting to a disqualified person a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. In health, the 2014 Act introduced charges of 150% of the cost to the NHS for treatment, often upfront. Failure to pay means pursuit by debt collectors. In employment, although employers have been obliged to check papers since the late 1990s, the 2014 Act introduced a new criminal offence of ‘illegal working’. The 2016 Act introduced fines for employers of up to £10,000 and made hiring a disqualified person punishable by up to five years in prison.

In a particularly odious example of what the ‘hostile environment’ means for those caught in its snares, The Guardian carried a story on 9 May about children from destitute families being denied free school meals due to their and their parents’ immigration status including a ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition. According to a 2016 Children’s Society Report, over 50,000 people with dependants have this condition applied to their leave to remain.

These children represent the human cost of the ‘hostile environment’. So too do the now high-profile Windrush targets of the policy, such as:

  • Albert Thompson, who was asked to pay £54,000 for cancer treatment;
  • Joseph Bravo, who has lived in Britain for 54 years and who missed his daughter’s wedding in Jamaica because the Home Office would not issue him a passport;
  • Gretel Gorcan, who, having lived in Britain for 50 years, went back to Jamaica for her sister’s funeral in 2010, and was not allowed back into the country, cutting her off from her family.

To prove permanent residence, the Home Office has demanded that people supply two separate documents including proof of address for every year that they have been resident in the UK. Unsurprisingly, most find themselves unable to complete this Kafkaesque task. Additional problems with lack of documentation have faced those who came to Britain as children on their parents’ passports, or those who were in fact born here. In all these cases, long-resident citizens have faced the threat of deportation.

According to figures obtained by i-News, 7,629 Commonwealth nationals were among the 13,500 people removed from Britain on chartered flights to countries including Jamaica, Pakistan, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Nigeria between 2010 and 2016.

On 2 May, Labour presented an opposition day motion seeking access to government documents relating to the Windrush affair. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that ‘Labour will demand the Government releases all papers, correspondence and advice that led to the Windrush scandal’. In response, May announced an internal review into the affair which, according to Javid, ‘will seek to draw out how members of the Windrush generation came to be entangled in measures designed for illegal immigrants, why that was not spotted sooner, and whether the right corrective measures are now in place’ (emphasis added).

Labour offers no solution

Not surprisingly, Labour politicians have seized the opportunity to hammer the Conservatives and champion the rights of the Windrush generation, whilst ensuring they distance themselves from any responsibility their own party bears for Britain’s immigration policy, laws and apparatus, and continuing to reiterate Labour’s tough line against all categories of less ‘deserving’ migrant.

The documents requested by Corbyn are therefore only those issued between 11 May 2010 and 1 May 2018, i.e. under Conservative governments. The scope excludes anything related to deportation targets in operation between 1998 and 2010 under the Blair/Brown Labour governments, the UK Borders Act 2007, which introduced automatic deportation for foreign nationals imprisoned for more than one year and gave immigration officers police-like powers, or the introduction of charter flight deportations in 2001.

Appearing on BBC's Question Time on 27 April, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott objected to ‘how people confuse the issue of illegal immigrants with the issue of the Windrush generation. They were not immigrants. They were Commonwealth citizens.’ She then used the opportunity to emphasise how Labour ‘would want to bear down on the numbers’ of illegal immigrants.

On 15 May, speaking at an event organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Abbott pledged that, if elected, Labour would scrap the hostile environment and close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres. Distancing herself from the last Labour government, which oversaw the construction of Yarl’s Wood, Brook House and some ten other immigration prisons, she said: ‘The Labour Party is under new management, and part of that management is having a very different conversation on migration than we’ve had in the past decades.’

Writing on Windrush in The Guardian on 30 April, David Lammy deliberately used the word ‘citizen’ repeatedly, pointing out that, in her last speech to the Commons, Rudd had said ‘illegal’ 23 times, ‘but did not even once say the word “citizen”.’ He went on: ‘This is symptomatic of how the hostile environment operates. It blurs the lines, and raises questions about the status of Commonwealth British citizens, refugees and asylum seekers so that anybody who looks as though they could conceivably be an illegal immigrant is seen as such.’

At the same time as backing the Windrush generation, castigating the government and making promises about future reversals of the harsh treatment of migrants both by the Conservatives and, by implication at least, by the previous Labour administration, Labour politicians continue to spout the same old anti-migrant rhetoric in relation to anyone seemingly less meritorious. So, in the same article in which he castigated Rudd and May, Lammy set up a spurious distinction in relation to immigration bail between ‘asylum seekers and criminals’, while Abbott made sure that her IPPR speech also repeated the 2017 election manifesto promise to hire more border guards. Bizarrely, the day after the speech, she tweeted under #EndHostileEnvironment: ‘Labour’s Manifesto already included a pledge to hire 500 extra Border Guards to help tackle illegal immigration. The Tories cut the number of Border Guards #EndHostileEnvironment.’

abbott hostile environment

Labour must walk a fine line, remaining ‘tough on immigration’ so as not to alienate its more reactionary supporters or a hostile media, while championing the Windrush generation, who enjoy not just widespread public support but genuine sympathy from many Labour MPs and much of the party’s membership.

What has happened to the Windrush generation is outrageous, and demonstrates graphically what FRFI has always written about Britain’s immigration controls: that they exist to defend the interests of British imperialism. But, unlike the Conservatives who pretend to be bemused about how the Windrush generation got ‘entangled’ in measures designed to target others, or the Labour Party which wants to ensure that such entanglement can never happen again, communists do not stop at defending the Commonwealth citizens who came to this country at the behest of British imperialism. We defend the rights of all migrants – be they citizen or resident, ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, asylum seeker, worker or student, whether from the former British Empire, the EU or elsewhere, to come and live here free from persecution. All Britain’s immigration controls are an expression of imperialism and racism and we oppose them all.         

* In December 2016 Cooper argued that there was a ‘progressive case’ for limiting the number of migrants because ‘low-skilled workers’ are brought in ‘to undercut wages and jobs’, causing ‘problems for economies’.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 264 June/July 2018


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