There were various celebrations and exhibitions planned to mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of West Indian mass immigration to the U.K., with the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in London on 22 June 1948. Instead, a scandal has grown up about the treatment of the “Windrush Generation” that led to the resignation of the Home Secretary.
After World War 2, citizens of British colonies or Commonwealth countries were encouraged to help rebuild Britain, which had been devastated by the war. Some of these future immigrants had already had experience of the U.K. as part of the British armed forces in the war. In 1948, a British troop ship, the Empire Windrush, stopped in Jamaica to pick up servicemen. An advert in the local press encouraged other Jamaicans to fill the ship on its return journey.
The Windrush carried 492 passengers but many thousands more followed between 1948 and 1971. They discovered a country much less glorious than the one portrayed in their school books. The cold weather and bland food was compounded by openly racist behaviour. Discrimination was particularly bad when families sought housing. Signs often warned: "No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks."
Despite the difficulties, most of the immigrants stayed and made a life for themselves in the U.K.
But changes in Britain’s immigration laws in 2012 (brought in by Theresa May, the then Home Secretary), have led to increasing numbers of the Windrush Generation being asked for proof of their right to stay in order to access housing, jobs or receive treatment on the NHS or the pensions they contributed to for decades. Many of the immigrants, particularly those who arrived as children on their parents’ passports, have no written proof of their arrival in the U.K. And many have never applied for a passport, since they didn’t have the means to travel abroad. Since the U.K. has no identity card system, they have no proof of their legal status.
Articles started appearing about the problem in late 2017, and many MPs were contacted by constituents facing problems. In some cases, people had even been deported when they couldn’t prove their residence status. It transpired that the Home Office had destroyed all the paperwork concerning the immigrant ships in 2010, making it even more difficult for immigrants to prove their arrival dates.
In April, Home Office minister Amber Rudd was forced to resign over her handling of the affair, to be replaced by Sajid Javid, himself a first-generation Briton, the son of Pakistani immigrants. He has promised that, "I want to start by making a pledge, a pledge to those from the Windrush generation who have been in this country for decades and yet have struggled to navigate through the immigration system. This never should have been the case and I will do whatever it takes to put it right."
The Home Office has also launched a consultation with a view to compensating people affected by the scandal.
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You’ll find a sequence on the Windrush Generation in Speakeasy Activities 3e, using primary sources to explore the experiences of different immigrants..