Sylvester Marshall, the Windrush victim who was denied NHS cancer care, has been given permanent right to remain in the UK after a battle with the Home Office that has absorbed nine years of his life.
Marshall – who the Guardian had been calling Albert Thompson at his request as he pursued his immigration application with the Home Office – had an appointment on Friday afternoon with the Windrush taskforce, set up last week to try to deal with the rapidly rising numbers of people affected by the immigration scandal.
Marshall, 63, emerged from Lunar House, the immigration headquarters in Croydon, with a piece of paper confirming “there is no time limit on your stay in the UK”. He will receive a biometric card next week.
Marshall said he felt free for the first time in years. “I’ve always been looking over my shoulder to see if there’s any police; I worried that they will pick me up, ask for papers and deport me,” he said. “Now I can relax.”
What is the Windrush deportation crisis?
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.
His relief over the paperwork, and the decision by the Royal Marsden hospital to start his long-delayed radiotherapy next week, was tempered with anger at the treatment he had received from the Home Office since he first tried to replace a lost driving licence in 2009.
Marshall visited the same Croydon office several times to try to explain he was in the UK legally. “They didn’t believe me, they wanted proof,” he said.
Marshall arrived in London from Jamaica as a teenager in 1973 to join his mother who was working as a nurse. He worked as a mechanic and paid taxes until cancer forced him to stop work. He had never applied for a passport; he believed he was British and until he lost his driving licence had no reason to think he needed documentation.
“I think they treated me very unfairly,” he said. “All the way along I have been telling them I am here legally and they didn’t believe me at all.”
Marshall said he wondered if the 2010 destruction by Home Office staff of the landing cards of arrivals from the Caribbean had complicated his situation. “They wouldn’t take my word for it, but at the same time they are the ones who destroyed all the paperwork. If they destroyed all the paperwork, how can I have proof?
“They kept saying they cannot find any trace of me. I felt like an alien who’s fallen from the sky and ended up in England. How did they think I got here?
“Now I feel like I am human again.”
Marshall’s case was the first to attract political attention to the Windrush scandal in March. Details of his case were raised twice by Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions. The first time, Theresa May said she was unaware of the issue (although a Guardian article five days earlier had triggered widespread condemnation). She later wrote to Corbyn saying Marshall needed “to evidence” his right to be in the UK.
His case was raised again by Corbyn last Wednesday, and May announced he would get the treatment he needed (though no one had told Marshall). She was careful to spell out that he was not a Windrush case, having arrived a few months after 1 January 1973, the date before which everyone who arrived in the UK has a right to naturalise and become a British citizen. But in every other way, Marshall fits the Windrush category.
His lawyer, Jeremy Bloom, of Duncan Lewis solicitors, said he was unimpressed that Home Office staff could not answer questions about how Marshall could upgrade his “no time limit settled status” to full citizenship, and how he might get compensation.
“There remains an extremely worrying lack of clarity around how people in his position can prove their residency. Officials were not able to give us clear guidance on documentation required and noted that details of the compensation scheme have not yet been finalised,” Bloom said.
The latest Home Office figures on the number of calls made to the Windrush hotline were given on Wednesday: 3,800, of which 1,364 were identified as potential Windrush cases; 600 call backs had taken place; 91 appointments had been made; 25 appointments had taken place; and 23 cases resolved and documents issued.
Marshall’s problems became serious in 2013 when Lambeth council told him he was not eligible for emergency housing because he could not prove he was in the country legally. He was housed in a temporary hostel for several years, but the managers repeatedly tried to evict him because of doubts about his eligibility for funding. He was finally evicted in July 2017, a few months after having surgery for prostate cancer.
He spent about three weeks sleeping rough before the St Mungo’s homelessness charity found him a room in another hostel. Then, when he arrived for the first session of a course of radiotherapy in November 2017, the Royal Marsden told Marshall he would have to pay £54,000 for treatment unless he could prove his residency status.
Windrush scandal: Albert Thompson on his £54,000 cancer bill – video
Sally Daghlian, the head of Praxis, the charity that helped Marshall with his case, said she was delighted his rights had been recognised.
“He has become emblematic of the appalling Windrush scandal,” she said. “The whole country has been scandalised that it has taken so long and so much publicity for his status to be recognised, so that he can get on with his life and much-needed cancer treatment.”
Marshall said he would like to meet the prime minister to help her understand the consequences of the hostile environment policy she advocated as home secretary.
“I think the government needs to clean up its act,” he said. “Why did we have to suffer like this?”