They came to help rebuild Britain after the devastation of World War Two, invited by the UK government to lay roads, drive buses, clean hospitals and nurse the sick.
Known as the Windrush generation – the first of their numbers came on the Empire Windrush passenger liner in June 1948 – they were the first large group of Caribbean migrants to arrive in the UK. They came to symbolize the seismic demographic changes that took place in post-war Britain, when hundreds of thousands of people came to the United Kingdom from former British colonies, known as the Commonwealth.
But in recent years, successive British governments have sought to appear tough on illegal immigration, and their descendants are now struggling to prove a citizenship status they previously took for granted. In essence, the children of the Windrush generation are being told they might not be British after all.
Yet the Windrush generation are not illegal immigrants. Until a new immigration law came into force in 1973, Commonwealth citizens and their children had the automatic right to live and work in the UK. Many did so, without any need for additional documentation.
In recent years, however, changes to UK immigration law have caused significant problems for many of them.
Regulations introduced by Prime Minister Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary in the previous Conservative government led by David Cameron, require employers, landlords and health service providers to demand evidence of legal immigration status. In 2012, May described the measures as designed to create a “hostile environment” for people who were in the UK illegally.
The trouble is, many of the Windrush children don’t have the required documentation. As a consequence, some lost their jobs, others were evicted from their homes, and a few were reported to have been threatened with deportation.
The bubbling controversy exploded into a full-blown scandal at the weekend. For the first time in 20 years, the UK is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, a biennial summit of leaders of Commonwealth nations. A delegation of Commonwealth leaders requested a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the Windrush issue, which Downing Street – to widespread consternation – declined.
Stung by a wave of negative publicity, the government backed down and said a meeting would take place. Forced to appear before MPs in the House of Commons, Home Secretary Amber Rudd apologized for the “appalling” treatment of some of the Windrush migrants and promised that none of them would be deported for lack of documentation.
But many have gone through months of agony.
Glenda Caesar was just six months old in 1961 when she traveled from Dominica to the UK with her parents. After working for 16 years as an administrator with the National Health Service, she suddenly lost her job as she could not provide the necessary documentation.
“I worked as an administrator for the NHS and was told I have to leave as I did not have UK status,” she told CNN. “I am not working at present and still need documentation on my father and school or medical records as the final part.”
Labour MP David Lammy said in a tweet Monday that what was happening was “grotesque, immoral and inhumane,” and has rallied around 140 fellow MPs from all parties to call on the Prime Minister to immediately address the issue in parliament.