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The Government’s cruel “hostile environment” policy created the Windrush scandal

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Even as an island built on immigration, the landing of the HMT Empire Windrush was special.  Filled with men and women who had been proactively invited to the UK, as citizens, to help rebuild our country after WWII; it was this Windrush Generation who built our homes, schools and hospitals, drove our trains, maintained our roads and cared for our sick.

Many came to Hornsey & Wood Green and raised their families here.  Rightly, they’ve always thought of Britain as their home.  Yet in recent weeks, eleven “Windrush” local residents have contacted me for help because they couldn’t convince the Home Office of their status and feared deportation.  That same picture is playing out across the country.  People who have been here legally for fifty years losing their jobs, benefits, access to healthcare and sometimes even their homes.  With the Migration Observatory calculating that up to 57,000 Commonwealth-born, long-term UK residents have never formalised their status in the UK, this scandal is a long way from its conclusion.

It is shameful and it is right that Home Secretary Amber Rudd stood down. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not an “administrative” oversight or a technical glitch.  This situation has arisen because of a deliberate Government policy to create a “hostile environment” and in doing so pander to bogus immigration targets, remove crucial protections and increase deportations.  It is an approach that has helped fuel xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment that continue to plague some parts of society. The architect of this policy, first as Home Secretary and now as PM, was Theresa May.

As an immediate response, the Government must restore the immigration protections which they removed in 2014 and confirm the rights of these early Commonwealth arrivals as British citizens. We must be told what deportations have already happened and the Government must apologise, pay compensation where necessary and invite anyone who has been deported in error back to the UK immediately.  The new Home Secretary Sajid Javid must deal with concerning reports that UK residents are being threatened with deportation to Jamaica on charter flights this week.

But this isn’t enough.  In the three years I’ve been MP, I’ve helped hundreds of constituents with immigration cases; many from Commonwealth countries with strong and legitimate claims to be here.  A recent example is of a woman from Cyprus who came here in the early 1970s.  She never applied for citizenship because the fees were too high and with indefinite leave to remain she understandably thought her future was secure.  Yet in seeking to create a “hostile environment”, Theresa May’s Government has demanded these early arrivals produce written proof of nationality which many people simply don’t possess.

Too often, they have struggled to have their voices heard by a disinterested Home Office bureaucracy and deemed to be immigrants because of the colour of their skin.   They’ve been told to seek independent legal advice, that, in most cases was too expensive or difficult to access.  Amnesty says the Conservative Government’s removal of legal aid from immigration cases has been profound, with people left trying to “navigate complex legal processes, with ever changing immigration rules, as they face potential removal and separation of their family”.

The “Windrush” scandal is glaring proof that Theresa May’s deliberately “hostile environment” has swept anybody who can’t easily prove their immigration status into its net, especially black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

So, whilst immediate actions to formalise the status of the Windrush generation are crucial, the new Home Secretary must also abandon this inhumane and cruel policy once and for all.

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Catherine West
About Catherine West (19 Articles)
Labour Member of Parliament for Hornsey & Wood Green | Shadow Foreign Minister | Mum of two |