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01 July 2020
Windrush Day (22 June) is a time to celebrate the substantial and ongoing contribution of the Windrush generation and their descendants, who helped to rebuild the United Kingdom after World War II and have influenced the United Kingdom's social, cultural and political landscape ever since. It is also a time to reflect on righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal and focus on the fight against racism.
Windrush Day was not established until 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMS Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22 June 1948, after a successful petition by campaigner Patrick Vernon.
Most of the Windrush generation are of black Caribbean origin. Although they were originally asked to come to the United Kingdom as citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies, with the same legal rights to live and work in the United Kingdom as those born here, on arrival they faced significant race discrimination and limitations on their opportunities, being described in official documents on early Caribbean migration as "coloured colonial labour". Many took up essential but low-paid jobs in sectors such as healthcare, transport, manufacturing and construction, despite having previously worked in more skilled positions.
When the Immigration Act 1971 came into force at the beginning of 1973, the Windrush generation were classified as having the right of abode in the United Kingdom and they continue to have the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. However, they were given no evidence of this status and the Home Office kept no records. Some individuals did obtain evidence over time; however, many did not.
Those without evidence of their status had their lives turned upside down as initiatives to tackle illegal migration were rolled out over time – particularly with the government's implementation of 'hostile environment' measures from 2012. These required (and still require) individuals living in the United Kingdom to provide evidence of their lawful immigration status:
The results of these measures were devastating, with people losing their livelihoods and pensions, homes, sense of identity and security and ability to be with their family. In the case of those denied cancer and other critical healthcare, people literally lost their lives.
The situation received little attention from the Home Office until April 2018, when The Guardian ran front page stories on the matter for two consecutive weeks, sparking a worldwide media response and setting off a chain of events that ultimately forced Home Secretary Amber Rudd to resign. A Windrush Task Force was set up at the Home Office to provide members of the Windrush generation with free documentary evidence of their status. A review of historical cases was carried out, a hardship fund and compensation scheme were established and an independent review was commissioned to identify key lessons for the Home Office.
Wendy Williams's independent review was published in March 2020 and, although it falls short of finding institutional racism within the Home Office, the independent reviewer stated that its failings showed an:
institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.
Windrush Day is important because, aside from being a celebration, it provides an opportunity to reflect on what progress has been made to provide redress to the Windrush generation following the Windrush scandal and to renew efforts to ensure that the measures put in place are effective. The Windrush Lessons Learned Review report notes that although the National Audit Office estimated in its Windrush report that there might be up to 500,000 people in the United Kingdom who may have difficulties documenting their status, the Windrush Task Force had issued documentation to only 8,124 people as at September 2019. Further, there had been 1,108 claims but only 36 payments made under the compensation scheme as at 31 December 2019, amounting to £62,196. Clearly, further substantial work must be done.
Racism in the United Kingdom is real and invidious. It affects the perceptions and actions of Parliament, the civil service, businesses and private individuals. In relation to the Home Office and the Windrush scandal, the independent reviewer found that:
The department has failed to grasp that decisions in the arena of immigration policy and operations are more likely to impact on individuals and the families of individuals who are [black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)], who were not born in the UK, or who do not have British national origins or white British ethnic origins.
If real and lasting change is to occur in removing the less favourable treatment and detriments experienced by the BAME members of society, including the Windrush generation, it is incumbent on everyone to educate themselves on the United Kingdom's history – particularly the structural inequalities generated from its colonial past. Individuals must also become more sophisticated in being able to identify and speak out against racism, as well as taking action in their own professional and personal capacities to address it.
For further information on this topic please contact Kathryn Denyer at Lewis Silkin by telephone (+44 20 7074 8000) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Lewis Silkin website can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com.
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