LEICESTER, United Kingdom – An immigration scandal involving people who came to Britain from the country’s colonies after World War II highlights the problems faced by other immigrants to the country, especially asylum seekers, according to the leading Catholic refugee agency.
The Jesuit Refugee Service said the “Windrush” controversy is a consequence of a British policy to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants in the country.
Thousands of immigrants from then-British territories in the Caribbean, as well as South Asia and Africa, were brought to Britain to help with post-war labor shortages. This “Windrush generation” – named after the MV Empire Windrush, a ship carrying hundreds of Caribbean immigrants to England in 1948 – were given “indefinite leave to remain,” which roughly corresponds to having a U.S. green card, in 1971.
(This status was also based on the immigrants being citizens of the Commonwealth, the international organization headed by Queen Elizabeth II mostly made up of the countries of the former British Empire.)
However, many of these immigrants were never given any official paperwork, and those who came as children usually arrived on their parents’ passports. In 2010, the “landing cards” – which were filled in when the Windrush generation first arrived in the country – were destroyed, leaving no records of their entry into the country.
In 2016, the government began a new program to deport people who could not prove they were in the country legally, which threatened the estimated nearly 60,000 Commonwealth immigrants from before 1971.
Many suddenly couldn’t get public benefits, were dismissed from their jobs, and even told by the government they were going to be deported.
Bishop Paul McAleenan, Chair of the Office for Migration Policy at the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said, “Such an oversight is both extraordinary and unacceptable.”
“To deny them access to the benefits of the State they have served so well would have been truly reprehensible,” he said in a statement. “The Windrush generation and all communities that have made meaningful contribution to this country deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.”
The bishop’s comments came after the government apologized earlier this week.
“I do not want any of the Commonwealth citizens who are here legally to be impacted in the way they have. Frankly, some of the ways they have been treated has been wrong, has been appalling, and I am sorry,” said Amber Rudd, who heads the Home Office (which combines the roles of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.)
“I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual,” she said April 16.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who previously served as head of the Home Office, on April 17 personally apologized to Caribbean leaders, who were in London for a meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government.
Jesuit Refugee Service UK Director, Sarah Teather, welcomed the apology.
“After growing uproar, the government this week apologized for their treatment, and said it would work to get official documents for those affected,” she said in a statement. “In these citizens, the government has been forced to consider immigration policy through a more human lens and so to glimpse the devastation that its hostile environment agenda wreaks on human lives.”
But Teather questioned the official policy of the British government to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, saying it affects everyone seeking entry into the country.
“The hostile environment has far wider consequences. In our work at the Jesuit Refugee Service, we see daily how it crushes the lives of many who have come here in search of safety. If the Home Secretary is serious about delivering an immigration policy that cares about human lives, she must now reflect deeply on the direction of travel of the department she leads and abandon the hostile environment agenda altogether.”
The refugee agency said that although the policy is primarily directed at illegal immigrants, it makes it more difficult for anyone with any sort of irregularities, the lack of documents for the Windrush immigrants just being the most prominent example.
This is especially true for asylum seekers. The UK is the only European country that has no time limit on detaining asylum seekers, and JRS has argued asylum claims are assessed looking for reasons to refuse the application, as opposed to making a neutral assessment.
“The system is so complex that they [asylum seekers] misread the documents, which means they go back to the complete beginning. Many of the people that we work with are asylum seekers who have gone through all kinds of different traumas, as you can imagine, and when they’re initially interviewed, they are given only ten minutes,” said Megan Knowles, a JRS communications officer.
She told Crux the problems faced by the Windrush immigrants over the past two years – lack of work, inability to rent a home or get a bank account, fear of detention – has been happening across the board to many different people.
In 2010, the ruling Conservative party pledged to cut immigration to the UK to “the tens of thousands,” a target many experts saw as impractical.
Since that time, the government has made it more difficult for all sorts of immigrants to come to the country, including spouses of British citizens, students, and academic appointments.
They have also tightened up on the procedures for asylum seekers to prove their refugee status.
Looking at the mistakes that were acknowledged by the Home Office in the Windrush case, Knowles said, “it is deeply concerning, and deeply worrying, in the sense that if that can happen to Windrush generation, and to Commonwealth citizens and even British citizens, then what hope have we got to support people who are seeking protection and seeking sanctuary?”
Knowles said she hopes the present scandal helps the Home Office become “more humane,” but she fears there is a risk the government will try to isolate the Windrush cases and not reassess the “hostile environment” policy.
“What we would like to see is a truly reflective look at the immigration system as a whole and being able to see it in a much more humane way and being able to protect people at every level,” she said.