Today marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of MV Empire Windrush. On 22 June 1948, 500 Caribbean-born people arrived at Tilbury in Essex. Between 1948 and the late 1960s, Britain invited a generation of people from Caribbean countries to settle here in the UK, so they could help rebuild the country after the Second World War and support understaffed public services. Many of them arrived as children, who were then able to travel on their relatives’ passports.
Today of course, we live in the era of ‘Go Home Vans’. Usually, when we see a boat carrying hundreds of migrants, it’s sinking in the Mediterranean Sea hundreds of miles from our shores. But this is one boat the government is determined to be seen celebrating. It has allocated £500,000 to commemorate the arrival of people who, just weeks ago, it was trying to deport as part of its policy of creating a systematic ‘Hostile Environment’ for migrants.
Two months after the government promised to resolve the Windrush Scandal, people here – whose lives and families have been torn apart – report chaos and incompetence from the government’s efforts to resolve the issue. Many remain in dire financial straits, wrongly fired or sleeping destitute on the streets, while others remain stranded in Caribbean countries to which they’ve been wrongly deported – and the Home Office says it can’t find them.
Some will choose not to come forward and claim their right to remain in the UK because of the stigma they faced here and the trauma of detention and deportation. This is a quiet reflection of the deep pain for Caribbean-born Brits who overcame poverty and racism to make a home here, only to be made to feel like enemies in their own country.
What is the Windrush Scandal?
Because the Home Office never kept a record of who had settled here, the Windrush Scandal has threatened as many as 50,000 with deportation – even though they had been granted indefinite leave to remain here. The Home Office then placed an unreasonable burden of proof on the victims of its incompetence, asking them to provide legal documentation going back over decades in order to evidence their ‘legality’ – part of the Hostile Environment tactic of putting up as many barriers as possible. People have been denied vital healthcare or been afraid to access it for fear of being put on a gang register. They have lost jobs, been detained in prison-like conditions and in some cases, expelled from the country.
The Windrush Scandal could only have emerged under a government determined to create a Hostile Environment for anyone in the UK without the correct immigration papers. Hostile Environment policies compel employers, landlords, banks and even NHS staff to demand evidence of immigration status and report any anomalies to the Home Office, cutting undocumented people off from basic services.
For years, refugee rights and migration justice groups have warned that Hostile Environment policies are having a devastating impact, not just on people who are undocumented, but also on those who are here legally and especially on people of colour. As people were swept up into the Hostile Environment left, right and centre, the issue was resolutely ignored by politicians and the mainstream media, leaving it to grassroots groups like Docs Not Cops, Let Us Learn and ABC Schools to highlight the racial profiling and denial of services by the NHS, student finance and even in junior schools, where children of colour have been asked by their teachers to produce passports.
Year on year, cuts to legal aid have also left people facing these circumstances unable to access any form of legal advice or support. The compound effect of these policies shows how austerity Britain with its Hostile Environment targets the most marginalised in our society.
A legacy of colonial exploitation
We’ve heard the Windrush story a lot this week, but usually without its opening chapter, which has only recently come to light. Before its return journey to Tilbury in Essex bringing 500 people to settle here, MV Empire Windrush had an outward voyage, carrying airman who’d fought for Britain in the war. These were 500 of the 10,000 Caribbean men and women recruited for the war effort, who were finally able to return home to their families. At each island stop, the ship dropped off the airmen and collected the famous passengers before sailing back to Tilbury and into the history books.
Ultimately, Windrush is a story of colonial exploitation and dependency. The Caribbean is usually cast as the grateful beneficiary, but the original course and purpose of this famous ship tells a different story, through the eyes of the Caribbean airmen who risked their lives to fight against fascism during the war. This is just one spell of amnesia in a much longer history of erasing the humanity, value, identities and oppressions of people of colour within the former British Empire.
The age of British Empire dawned over the Caribbean. The English colonised a number of islands in the 17th century, introduced sugar cane and imported 2.3 million men, women and children from Africa as slaves to work the sugar plantations. Conditions in these plantations were some of the worst in the whole Transatlantic Slave Trade. There were slave rebellions on many islands, most notably the French colony of Saint-Domingue where slavery was successfully overthrown, and in Haiti, where African slaves led an uprising and fought side by side with Irish indentured workers to overthrow their oppressors.
Crocodile tears, too little, too late
A people toiled for centuries to enrich Britain and were then told they have no place here; the government’s £500,000 grant for events today is too little too late, it cannot make up for the injustices done to people of the Windrush generation without also recognising and making sincere attempts to make reparations for the injustices of Britain’s colonial past, and addressing present-day neo-colonialist policies. This must include helping migrants and people of colour seeking the right to a dignified life – especially pertinent when the current government continues to deny asylum to the most vulnerable, including children fleeing conflict in Syria.