Stories of the Windrush generation living ‘illegally’ in the U.K have dizzied the media this week. These people have lost jobs, been denied access to the NHS and benefits, and have even been deported. According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, up to 57,000 people are believed to be at risk of being targeted yet the actual number is difficult to know. Guy Hewitt, the High Commissioner for Barbados, has even publically advised for people not to approach the Home Office for help without notifying their lawyers or immigration charity first, as cases have emerged of Windrush children being sent from the Office into detention centres.
Other Windrush children being asked to defend their citizenship status with four types of proof for every year they have been in the U.K since their arrival. Not only is this ludicrous, but it wrongly places the onus of responsibility on the individual victims and not on the Government that should be defending them. What’s more, Theresa May’s offer for Windrush children to re-apply for citizenship free of charge implies they were never citizens to begin with and mocks the lives they have established here. With HMRC data, NHS data, or even NIS data, the Government could prove the history of the Windrush generation in this country yet the Home Office has not yet explicitly committed to do so. And what ever happened to those destroyed landing cards that could have rectified all of this? As you can imagine, the backlash from the opposition party and the public has been searing. Meanwhile apologies from ministers have been numerous and flacid.
The Windrush generation refers to immigrants arriving to the U.K between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries. They were asked to come to the U.K. to ease labour shortages after the war and have since settled, brought up families, and contributed to our economy and culture. Many of whom were young children travelling on their parents passports, and therefore held no travel documents of their own. However, the Windrush generation are by no means illegal; the Immigration Act of 1971 in fact confirmed their status to remain. Until now.
What has really tipped the Windrush case from embarrassment to full-on scandal was the revelation that regional immigration offices (an arm of the Home Office) have been measuring staff performance on how many illegal immigrants they deport. Home Secretary Amber Rudd quickly u-turned over her knowledge of these deportation ‘targets’, after it was revealed overnight that they are openly displayed on posters in regional immigration centres. To get a sense of their scale, a 2015 report from the Chief Inspector of Border and Immigration states an annual target of 12,000 voluntary departures for 2015/16. As of Thursday, the targets have been scrapped, however their initial existence frankly makes a sport of deportation and its life altering effects.
You might wonder why these targets ever existed at all and why office staff were even under such pressure to deliver on them. You might also wonder why targets for illegal immigrants apply to the Windrush children since they are here legally, just without ‘proof’. While top level ministers this week have reassured the Windrush generation are welcome to stay, it’s clear that lower levels of government clearly got carried away long before these promises left their lips. Whilst Rudd’s U-turn was embarrassing and the targets shameful, these are both symptoms of a much darker issue: the intentional establishment of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigration.
During Theresa May’s time in the Home Office, a government task force was started with the sole purpose of establishing a ‘hostile environment’ for those intending to come to the U.K illegally. This is a puzzle piece of the U.K government’s wider aim to strip our net migration down to 100,000 people a year at all costs. FYI, international students are included in this figure, something that Nick Clegg desperately tried to change while acting as deputy Prime Minister. This aim was set back in 2010 and is a radical cut down from last year’s figure of 248,000. Since then, you could say immigration policy has gone wild. The 2014 Immigration Act (only opposed by 18 MPs) implemented a ‘deport first, appeal later’ clause, a complicated application process, tougher right to work and live checks, and even vans carrying billboards stating ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ that toured the U.K. Just four months ago, the Government restarted its task force on reestablishing this ‘hostile environment’ for anyone without proper documents. In doing so, did they just forget that thousands of Commonwealth citizens rightfully reside in the U.K without any? And when these targets are set and vans launched, where is the costing out of the potential for these policies to go wrong?
It is obvious that the treatment of the Windrush generation should not be directly conflated with tougher measures for illegal immigration. However there is no doubt that their contested immigration status is because of a deranged system meaning the Windrush generation were not given the benefit of the doubt anywhere near early enough.
The spotlight has been on Home Secretary Amber Rudd throughout all of this but she is perhaps not entirely to blame. Rudd rightly stated on Monday that ‘the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual’ and in saying this, she clearly meant to suggest she had inherited a hardline system from May’s time as Home Secretary. In her recently leaked memo, Rudd told May that her immigration strategy was ‘informed by the review that you commissioned as home secretary’. It would be simplistic to say Rudd was just following orders but her behaviour could also be symptomatic of this ‘hostile environment’ spearheaded by May. Going back further, it was revealed in April 2016 that the Foreign Secretary at the time, Philip Hammond, was told by Caribbean ministers about Windrush generation facing deportation and in May 2016 a letter from the Barbados government detailing their concern reached Number 10. The Home Office was of course also informed. The Windrush case therefore reached the highest levels of U.K Government two years ago, only to let the situation escalate to what it is now.
The Windrush scandal shows just how calculated and covert our immigration policy has become. At least Trump’s wall would be out in the open for everyone to throw eggs at, but the fortress that has become the Home Office is much harder to aim for.