Posted: 21st June 2021
The SS Empire Windrush sailed to Britain from the Caribbean in 1948, after Caribbeans were invited by the British government to help rebuild the UK after the Second World War. Caribbeans had fought alongside the British and were now poised to make another historic contribution to Britain – for generations to come.
The pioneering people who arrived on the Windrush and the other ships that followed from 1948 to 1971 became known as the Windrush Generation. Some of the estimated 500,000 new arrivals were children who came with their parents, travelling on their parents’ passports.
In 1971, as former British colonies in the Caribbean became part of the Commonwealth, the 1971 Immigration Act gave Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK indefinite leave to remain. From this date, any British passport holder born overseas who wanted to settle in the UK, could only do so with a work permit and proof that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK.
Government failures and a hostile environment
Years later, with changes to immigration laws and the introduction of the government’s hostile environment policy for immigration, many members of the Windrush Generation were told they could not stay permanently in the UK without the necessary proof that they had the right to remain here. Quite rightly, the Windrush Generation believed they had the right to stay because as citizens of former British colonies they had arrived with British passports, and as members of the Commonwealth had been given indefinite leave to remain in 1971.
The trouble was that, back then in 1971, the Home Office hadn’t kept a record of the people who had been granted leave to remain, and hadn’t issued any paperwork, making it difficult for the Windrush Generation to prove their legal status. Then, in 2010, the government also destroyed landing cards belonging to those who had arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971, making life even harder for the Windrush Generation.
Not surprisingly, it has been a struggle for many members of the Windrush Generation to find documentation and proof acceptable to government authorities to prove their right to remain in the UK.
With the onus on them to provide the necessary proof, despite successive governments failing to protect their immigration status, many members of the Windrush Generation also found themselves unable to access things like NHS treatment or government benefits. Despite having been invited to the UK by the British government, working hard for years and paying taxes and national insurance contributions like all good citizens. Some were sent to immigration centres and faced deportation, unlawfully detained and wrongfully removed from the UK.
When the scale and seriousness of the Windrush Scandal became clear in 2018, the Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, who as Home Secretary had been instrumental in introducing the hostile environment, apologised to Caribbean leaders. She reassured them that members of the Windrush Generation were “one of us” and that no-one who had made their life in the UK and was here legally would be forced to leave.
Many people have since declared the Prime Minister’s words untrue, pointing to cases of people who have been deported to Caribbean countries they haven’t been to for 60+ years, or have never even visited.
One of the only good things to come out of the Windrush Scandal was Windrush Day. Windrush Day was first launched by the government in 2018, with the 22 June chosen because it marked the 70th anniversary of the SS Windrush Empire’s arrival at Tilbury Docks.
Since then, Windrush Day has become an annual national day of celebration, acknowledging the contributions of the Windrush Generation and their descendants to the UK.
What will you be doing to celebrate and remember those amazing pioneers?