I am sitting beside my mother, watching the Windrush coverage. Both of us are saddened by the reports of black Britons, who are still being treated so cavalierly by the establishment. Because of the Windrush debacle, many have been separated from family and loved ones, forced out of work, often for years; and left unable to claim welfare and support. It now emerges that some are sleeping rough. Meanwhile, their offspring face being wrongly detained in jail, entrapped in gangs; or frightened even to go to hospital for fear of being put on a gang register, potentially jeopardising further work possibilities. All of which shows that despite the pomp and circumstances of a glorious royal wedding, and the resignation of a high ranking cabinet minister, endless apologies from the government and promises of compensation we, black Britain are still second class citizens.
What is the Windrush deportation crisis?
Who are the Windrush generation?
They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.
What is happening to them?
An estimated 50,000 people face the risk of deportation if they never formalised their residency status and do not have the required documentation to prove it.
Why is this happening now?
It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.
Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?
Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.
What is the government doing to resolve the problem?
On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a new Home Office team dedicated to ensuring that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.
Then I notice an older image – black and white pictures of the passenger liner Empire Windrush flash on the screen. And though my family were not part of the Windrush generation, these images remain, for me, among the most poignant in contemporary British history. They capture a moment just before the British Nationality Act of 1948, which gave colonial subjects the opportunity to finally gain the status of citizenship of the UK and colonies. There is real pathos in seeing these people arrive off the boat, and I wipe my eyes. And I know, as I look over at my mother, that I am not alone.
For me, a middle-aged black British subject, it is almost impossible not to be profoundly moved by those intense yet hopeful gazes, the impeccably tailored suits and ties, the bulging suitcases. Clearly, they have prepared very carefully to meet the motherland.
Little did they know that the arrival of the ship would prompt immediate complaints – including from some MPs – about “sooty arrivals” and the dangers that they represented. The controversy rumbled on for years with the first legislation controlling immigration not passed until 1962.
My mother shakes her head. “Another debacle,” she says. “Is it never possible for Britain to deal with its colonial history with grace. Do we really have to remind Britain again and again that the glorious buildings, the museums with the priceless artefacts, the cathedrals, the great wealth of the City, have been built on black backs?” My mother’s hands are now clenched. “It is as if the generations after generations of slaves toiling in the cane fields of the Caribbean never happened”
It is a question that many black Britons are asking once again. It is as if these abandoned souls who worked in Britain most of their lives and contributed financially and culturally to British society never existed. The ongoing scandal confirms the view that black Britons like myself are still seen as of no significance to Britain.
Lord Rosebery, the Liberal statesman and a towering political figure of the 19th century, called the British empire “the greatest secular agency for good that the world has seen”.
He could not have been more wrong. The acceptance of colonial subjects on British soil was grudging, to say the least. The name Windrush was never shorthand, as it might have been, for the beginning of the modern postcolonial British era; instead it came to symbolise in the public mind the dangers of migration.
Migrants are often the best and the bravest, willing to push past inertia and the fear of floundering in a strange land. Yet the road for black Britons in the UK has been long and rocky. I think of David Cameron, defending Britain and England’s honour by crowing that England had abolished slavery – blithely forgetting that Britain had introduced it into its colonies in the first place.
In an era where young black men are disproportionately represented in the prison system, surely it is clear that the violence of Britain’s colonial past hangs over the present. All of us need to confront this wilful forgetting around British history and tell the truth: Britain was built on the back of black slaves; they toiled and died over the centuries to enrich Britain.
This moment is an opportunity to overhaul what we think Britishness is – how our history is told – and seriously consider how we encourage racial inclusion. For it seems to me that more than hasty gestures, Britain needs a long and thoughtful exploration of what it means to be British and black.
• Andrea Stuart is the author of Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire