Windrush as Watershed? Revisiting migration policy and practice in the UK

In the volatile COVID-19 era, the shift of the UK government away from the ‘hostile environment’ may come as a surprise to some. Priti Patel’s statement on the 21st July 2020 on a more compassionate ‘people, not cases’ approach to immigration in the wake of the Windrush scandal contrasts sharply with Brexit and its aggressive approach towards immigration. The significant impact of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) on the mental health, wellbeing and belongingness to Britain among EU citizens is said to be huge. The plight of EU citizens and consistent activism to make EUSS accessible, particularly considering the increased barriers towards the vulnerable EU citizens groups since COVID-19 struck, is ongoing.

Windrush

The 1948 British Nationality Act conferred unrestricted entry and the right to live and work in the UK on citizens of the UK’s colonies and the Commonwealth. The act was intended to attract workers from the colonies in a bid to address labour shortages in post war Britain. Between 1948 and 1973 approximately 550,000 West Indians migrated to the UK. The 1971 Immigration Act introduced stricter immigration controls, requiring potential migrants to have family in Britain or apply for a work permit. Whilst this act effectively ended the Windrush migration, it also gave indefinite leave to remain to all those who arrived up until 1973.

The ‘Hostile Environment’

Between 2007-2018, UK government’s immigration policy focused on the creation of a hostile environment for so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants. At the centre was the burden to prove/document the right to live and work in Britain, which determined access to employment, housing, bank accounts and health care. Given the nature of the Windrush migration between 1948 and 1973 many had never regularised their status and could not document their right to remain. From late 2017 the press ran stories of the Windrush generation and their descendants risking deportation, facing homelessness and unemployment and being refused medical treatment. The international community responded swiftly, whilst at home the Church of England started a petition for an immigration amnesty for the Windrush migrants and the scandal led the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd to resign in April 2018.

The impact of Windrush

The true number of victims of the scandal remains unclear. The Home Office believes that 160 Windrush migrants were incorrectly detained or deported since 2002. Up till May 2020, 60 people had received compensation and 1257 had applied, but the scheme is deemed not fit for purpose because it is not easily accessible by claimants.

COVID-19 pandemic and backlog built-up

The ongoing pandemic appears to have had some impact on figures relating to immigration in the UK, risking to create a backlog of cases with the potential of placing migrants at risk of immigration control measures.Applications for the EU settlement scheme numbered 67,300 in April 2020 – a decrease of 46% on the previous month.Asylum applications and initial decisions have also fallen during lockdown.

A systematic scrutiny of migration governance and management is needed so that impactful precedents such as Windrush do not remain grouped under specific case studies. In light of Brexit’s strong anti-immigration focus and the further complications of migration management due to the ongoing pandemic, the new ‘people, not cases’ approach will likely fail to materialise. The UK immigration policy should not just be reactive to system’s failures, but take a human rights approach to migration which should pre-empt major violations and disruptions of migrant-origin people’s lives.

Dr Zana Vathi is an ISR Fellow, Director of the Migration Working Group – North West, and Reader in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University

Samantha Carney, is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University


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