The Windrush Review: An Apology is not Enough

Thea Sun examines the findings of the Windrush Lessons and asks whether it does enough to fix the betrayals suffered as a result of the British Government’s negligence.

As someone whose father is Jamaican and arrived on Britain’s shores in the late 70s, the Windrush scandal hits close to home. The Windrush Lessons Learned Review highlights the horrifying extent to which racism permeates Home Office decision-making.  It is time to stop pretending that “it isn’t about race”: the Home Office is teeming with institutional racism and something needs to be done about it. Their decisions have made the lives of innocent people hell. An apology is not enough, it is not even close.

This report, conducted by Wendy Williams, underscores the signs of systemic racism in the Home Office and their failure to address it over many governments. Why was this report published? I’m glad you asked. Back in 2018, The Guardian investigated the treatment of the Windrush Generation and exposed how black Commonwealth citizens were unlawfully detained, threatened with deportation or denied legal rights. Ultimately, over 160 individuals were deported. Many others were made jobless, homeless and stateless. 

In 1948, the Empire Windrush docked in Essex, bringing the first groups of people from the Caribbean to help tackle labour shortages in the UK. They helped build and support post-war Britain in a time of desperation. Many brought children and in the next two decades thousands more people came. All arrived without dated documents or stating the duration of their stay because the British Nationality Act 1948 did not require such formalities at this time. However, successive immigration laws changed the requirements, for example  the 1971 Immigration Act required every person entering the UK to have a passport. Thus passports became a form of legal documentation for every citizen. 

Among the chaos of Brexit, many of these Afro-Caribbean communities were denied leave to remain because they could not provide the ‘right’ documents. How can you provide the right papers when no such papers were given to you when you entered the country? The Home Office themselves did not issue such paperwork and didn’t keep official records of those who arrived until the sixties. The report found worrying signs of racism including the Hostile Environment Act of 2013 which deliberately sought out those who, on paper, were not UK nationals as a way to decrease immigration. The report also notes how shame, embarrassment and fear stopped those affected from speaking out about it. It is a sobering reminder of the continued double-standards and discrimination which the Home Office refuses to admit; its repeated attempts to classify its negligence as merely mistakes wear thin. 

The extensive report discovered that “the scandal has affected hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people, directly or indirectly, turning lives upside down and doing sometimes irreparable damage.” A Guardian article confirmed that of the victims, Sarah O’Connor, Hubert Howard and Richard (Wes) Stewart lost their lives as a result of the Home Office’s careless and callous acts. Clearly, the Home Office is failing to fulfil its aims, and with evidence cited as far back as the 60s, it is legitimate to question whether it has ever served its purpose with any humanity. Yet Wendy Williams is slightly doubtful, believing that there is no definitive evidence of institutional racism. Instead, she names thoughtlessness and ignorance to the experiences of this minority group as reasons for their decision-making. Her recommendations include putting more minority workers into senior positions and educating staff on colonialism. Whilst these are substantial findings from a Conservative government, time will tell if their suggestions are actually implemented. Nonetheless, with outrage from MPs Diane Abbott and David Lammy, combined with the call for an independent report on the scale of the racism by 16 equality and human rights organisations, scrutiny of the Home Office’s actions is ripe. 

Accounts of those affected include Vernon Vanriel, aged 63, who visited his son in Jamaica in the late 90s. Under new immigration laws, he was refused entry upon return. He was denied a UK visa despite being a father to three children here, paying taxes and living in Britain since he was six years old. I think such an unempathetic response cannot be passed off as thoughtlessness. It goes further and contributes to the systemic dehumanisation of black individuals. For others the outcome is more painful: Veronica’s dad was unable to return from Jamaica in 2001 and remained there till 2010, when he died of prostate cancer because he was unable to afford treatment. The reality is that for those in power, this is a situation few can comprehend. So as Amnesty International Programme Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights, Steve Valdez-Symonds expresses “the system casually carries on oblivious to these consequences” despite the situation being as Williams calls it “foreseeable and avoidable.”

To delay the report’s scheduled autumn release, and then publish it during the fog of the coronavirus is a cowardly move. It points towards using such news to distract from the gravity of this situation and intentions to conceal its findings under the panic of the pandemic. Over the decades, countless ‘apologies’ have been issued. Priti Patel’s latest superficial attempt is eerily similar to those of then Home Secretary Theresa May back in April 2018, where she apologised for any anxiety caused to those of our Caribbean community whose livelihood and lives have been left in pieces without a thought, or frankly a care, for what would happen next for them. Our Conservative government changes their approach to immigration solely on what benefits them. Just as fifty-two years ago Enoch Powell’s River of Blood Speech condemned the influx of immigrants when a few years earlier he encouraged Caribbean nurses to fill NHS shortages, today a similar tune is taken. Our NHS is short-staffed and our once considered ‘low-skilled’ workers are now vital to society because of a change in circumstance. The bitter irony of the parallels in our government now and over half a century ago is not lost. 

Ultimately the report shines light on the pitfalls in our immigration system and the repeated failures to address them, which have resulted in a legacy of wrongdoing towards the Afro-Caribbean community. Such people should be exempt from later immigration laws and be given meaningful reparations. We do not want the same mistakes to be repeated. The report has opened the door for more investigation into the malpractice of the Home Office, but it also underlines how far we have to go to right the wrongs of the past and prevent them from recurring. In such uncertain times, it is key to remain aware, to be outraged, and to really listen to and support those struggling.

Artwork by Madeleine Warren.

To read the full report or more on this topic, check out the articles below.

‘Windrush Lessons Learned Independent Review’

The Guardian – ‘Lambs to the slaughter’: 50 lives ruined by the Windrush scandal’

Amnesty International UK – ‘Seventy Years After Windrush’

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