The Windrush generation refers to those who arrived in the UK between the years of 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries, in response to labour shortages after the Second World War. The British Nationality Act 1948 gave Citizenship of the UK and Colonies to all people living in the UK and its colonies at the time, which brought with it the right of entry and settlement. On June 22 1948, the first group of 802 migrants arrived at the port of Tilbury on the ship HMT Empire Windrush, and thus the Windrush Generation found its name.
Exactly how many people ‘Windrush’ refers to is unclear, as many children travelled on their parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents. However, the number is estimated in the thousands. The Home Office didn’t keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue any paperwork to confirm it. In another crucial mistake, landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants were destroyed in 2010, making it extremely hard for many people to prove they received indefinite leave to remain under the 1971 Immigration Act.
In recent times, things haven’t been easy for the Windrush Generation. Changes to immigration law in 2012 mean that people require documentation to work, rent a property, access benefits (including the NHS) or even remain in the UK. Now, many of the Windrush Generation are fearful about their right to remain. They are stuck in limbo: without access to services they have enjoyed for years and unable to prove they are in the country legally.
The question of citizenship
British citizenship is something many take for granted. It comes with many benefits, including a UK passport, free medical care, the right to live or work in the UK without any restrictions, the right to vote or stand for public office and the advantages of being a European Union citizen. While the latter is no longer guaranteed, the rights of a British citizen allow people to function as a part of British society.
You can become a British citizen if you were born in the UK or have a British parent or spouse/civil partner. You can also apply if you’ve moved to the UK on a visa or from the European Economic Area, are stateless, have another type of British nationality or previously renounced your citizenship. In order to become a citizen, you simply have to submit an application, provide biometric information, be of “good character”, meet language requirements, pass the “Life in the UK” test and prove you meet the citizenship requirements.
But what happens when you can no longer meet these requirements and your status becomes unclear? The consequences are all too real for the Windrush Generation. After growing up here, working hard, paying taxes and raising families of their own, suddenly nothing is certain. Financial struggles are rife without the ability to get a job or claim benefits. Without the right to rent, homelessness after years of security is a harsh reality for some.
A Windrush taskforce has been set up to fast-track applications for the documents of those affected and a compensation scheme is being established, but there are still many heart-rending stories. One man is now living on the streets, awaiting news. A former NHS nurse faces deportation and was told by the Home Office to seek charity to help feed her child while she waits. There are even fatal consequences: one mother of a Windrush citizen who died suddenly after being sacked due to being classified as an illegal immigrant believes the stress caused by her son’s immigration problems was responsible for his death.
International development secretary Penny Mordaunt says there is “absolutely no question” of the Windrush generation’s right to remain. “People should not be concerned about this— they have the right to stay and we should be reassuring them of that.” A spokesman for Theresa May, who was home secretary when her department destroyed thousands of Windrush “landing cards”, said the prime minister was clear that “no one with the right to be here will be made to leave”.
The past and present
The Windrush generation is by no means the first group of people to fight for their citizenship and right to remain in the UK. One example is those that served in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which refers to units of Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who joined the British Army in early 1948 after Indian independence and partition. Gurkhas fought for Britain at the outbreak of the Brunei Revolt, defended the British sovereign base area of Dhekelia when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, took part in operations in Kosovo in 1999 and in UN peacekeeping operations in both East Timor and Sierra Leone in 2000.
The Gurkha Justice Campaign petitioned for Gurkhas who fought for the UK to have the same rights as their British and Commonwealth counterparts. The group wanted to change previous legislation that allowed Gurkhas a right of abode only if they retired after 1997. The Labour government under Tony Blair allowed Gurkhas with more than four years’ service to apply to stay in the UK, with the expectation of being granted indefinite leave and citizenship after a further year. But the cut-off date meant that a quarter of the veterans living in the UK weren't entitled to stay. Revised rules set out five requirements, of which at least one had to be met in order to stay. Despite an apparent victory for the lengthy campaign, this still disqualified many Gurkhas.
So where does that leave us? The current home secretary Sajid Javid has promised a “fairer, more compassionate immigration system”, perhaps in response to the policies that sparked the Windrush scandal. However, Government data has revealed that the number of German, Italian and French nationals applying for British citizenship has more than trebled in three years. The impact of Brexit is obvious, with almost 30,000 EU nationals applying for citizenship between June 2016 and June 2017, doubling numbers from the previous year.
As the government wrestles with these issues, events elsewhere show that things can change quickly. In the US, President Trump’s recent “travel ban” targeted individuals from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Travellers were detained, visas revoked, and there was confusion for Greencard holders and even dual citizens. Even though the Windrush scandal is on its way to being resolved here, the upheaval from such incidents will be remembered for generations to come. The legal rights of individuals, it seems, are more unpredictable than ever.