Two weeks after the Windrush scandal finally seized politicians’ attention, victims of Home Office mistreatment have expressed relief that the issue is getting the attention it needs, and anger that it has taken so long to attract mainstream interest.
Hubert Howard, 61, was delighted last week to be contacted by the Peabody Trust, the housing association where he had worked for over a decade as a caretaker until the Home Office classified him as an illegal immigrant, and his employers were forced to dismiss him.
He has been offered his old job back, and he hopes to be well enough to resume it once he gets the all-clear from his doctor (he has been diagnosed with leukaemia since he lost the job, but is determined to return to work in some capacity, and the housing association has promised to find him a suitable role).
“That was the best job I ever had,” he said. Because he was unable to work, and was also told he was not entitled to benefits because he had no immigration status here, he has been unable to pay back a loan he took out before the problem arose, and he is over £18,000 in debt, so is very anxious to start working again as soon as possible. “If I get my job back, I can start to pay that back.”
Howard, who arrived with his mother in the UK aged three from Jamaica and has never lived anywhere else, has struggled for years to persuade the Home Office that he is here legally. He still has the passport that he travelled here on, which has the landing date written in the corner of a stamp made by officials on arrival; he also has attendance records sent by Upton House, his now-demolished secondary school. These documents have never previously been considered sufficient proof by the Home Office – which meant he was unable to get a British passport; his mother died in Jamaica without him seeing her.
He called the Windrush hotline three time this week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; each time he was told he would get a call back. “They gave the impression they didn’t know what was going on; they were just data handlers,” he said. He finally got a call back on Sunday morning and has been called in for an appointment on 10 May, and was told to bring all available documentary proof that he was in the UK before 1971.
How the Guardian broke the story
In November last year, Paulette Wilson (left), who has lived in the UK for more than half a century, spoke to the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman about her treatment at the hands of the Home Office – and revealed that she had been held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre and threatened with deportation. It was the first of a series of stories that developed a picture of how many members of the Windrush generation were being mistreated by the government under the so-called ‘hostile environment’ policy. By February, with other examples mounting, the government had relented in Wilson’s case, but faced acute criticism from Caribbean diplomats who urged the Home Office to adopt a “more compassionate” approach.
In March the story of Albert Thompson – who had lived in Britain for 44 years but was told to produce a passport or face a bill of £54,000 for cancer treatment – forced attention back to the growing crisis. After the Guardian reported a string of additional cases matters came to a head when Theresa May refused to meet with Caribbean diplomats to discuss the issue, prompted fury among opposition MPs and a wider media backlash. After days of negative publicity Rudd and May were forced to change tack and issued apologies, promised reforms – and eventually gave the Windrush generation a fast-track to citizenship.
He was only mildly interested in the unfurling political ramifications. “I know that Amber Rudd is in charge but I think it’s Theresa May who’s responsible; but she is prime minister and it will be hard to get her out. I don’t really care anyway; I’m just satisfied that people are finally listening.”
He is extremely angry at the scale of the scandal unfolding. “I thought it was just me having these problems – getting told by Capita I was going to be deported. It feels like it was racist.”
Others caught up in the scandal have still not called the hotline – some because they are nervous of giving their details to officials in the department that has caused them so many difficulties, others because they have been pushed into destitution by the Home Office, and are struggling even to access a freephone number.
Winston Jones, 62, (not his real name) who was evicted and left homeless on the streets following his discharge after five months in hospital with a brain aneurysm that he attributes to the immigration-related stress, said he was having difficulty finding the correct number to call. Because of the continuing financial fallout from his immigration difficulties, the former British Rail worker, who arrived in Britain aged 16 in 1972, has no access to the internet, and was even unable to call the Guardian for advice until Friday because he had no credit on his mobile phone.
Cardlin Johnson has spent several years trying to help her brothers, Trevor and Desmond Johnson, untangle the extreme difficulties that have resulted from the Windrush scandal. She devoted much of her free time in the past week speaking to officials on the Windrush hotline, trying to get questions answered.
Trevor, a widowed single parent looking after two teenage daughters, was wrongly told in 2014 that he was in Britain illegally, told he would be deported and had his benefits cut off. Having arrived in the UK aged 10 in 1971, he was left with no money for two years, and for a while had to beg on the streets. His brother Desmond, who stayed temporarily in Jamaica to support his widowed mother after his father died in 2001, has been stuck in Jamaica ever since and has not seen his daughter for 16 years.
Cardlin has had repeated calls to and from the hotline in the past week, and only finally felt she was beginning to get some constructive responses during a call on Sunday morning. She was particularly frustrated that it was almost impossible for Desmond to call the hotline because it is not free from Jamaica, and the hotline hours are designed for UK time.
“They were very helpful today, and said there would a two-week turnaround for it to be resolved,” she said. But she was angry that there was no instant response on the question of back payment of Trevor’s two years of missed benefits; he too is heavily in debt and receiving alarming letters from debt collectors.
“Bear in mind that the child tax credits were even withdrawn, so they knew he had children under a certain age – it was horrible. We saw him struggle. How can you feed yourself and two children with no money? I feel really angry about it now.”
She was also hoping that the government might give clear details about compensation soon. “It is not just about financial losses because people weren’t able to work. What about the trauma, the anxiety, the mental illness that people suffer? You can’t really give people their lives back that they lost.”