Editor’s Note: Kehinde Andrews is an associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University and the author of the upcoming book “Black Radicalism.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Britain is meant to be celebrating 70 years since the arrival of the steamship Windrush, which brought with it 500 people from the Caribbean and marked the start of mass migration to the UK from the British Empire.
But the festive mood has been broken by the realization that a number of the Windrush generation – who migrated as children and have spent decades in Britain – have been classified as illegal immigrants, and are therefore losing jobs, being detained in immigration centers and even facing deportation to countries of which they have no memory.
Public and political pressure has forced Prime Minster Theresa May to apologize. But it was her Conservative Party’s policies that created the scandal in the first place.
The Windrush generation was welcomed to help rebuild the nation after World War II – before Britain imposed restrictions on immigration starting in the ’60s.
The problem is that although anyone who migrated before 1973 should have automatic right to remain, they were children at the time and may have no documents to prove their status.
People are now being caught up in the “hostile environment for illegal immigrants” created by May, which strengthened the duty of workplaces to carry out immigration checks. It is through these kind of checks that longstanding residents are being declared illegal.
To understand the crisis and the political context in which it sits, we need to go back to Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016. Even some of the leaders campaigning for Brexit were surprised the public narrowly voted to leave the European Union.
Immigration was a paramount concern, with the pledge to “take back our borders” to stop uncontrolled immigration being a vote winner. Public sentiment against immigration before the vote had shifted the politics of all the major parties to the right.
During May’s time as home secretary, the UK Home Office instituted some of the most draconian immigration policy in British history, which included sending out vans to tell undocumented immigrants to “go home,” making regular deportations and allowing Africans to drown in the Mediterranean as a deterrent to potential migrants.
In their appeal to minority voters, those pushing for Brexit promised that reducing immigration from Europe would mean that Britain could re-engage with her former empire, now known as the Commonwealth.
Xenophobia against Eastern Europeans had a certain attraction to black Britain, given that at the same time as limitless immigration from the European Union, ever increasing restrictions were being placed on movement from the Commonwealth.
British immigration policy has always had one track for white migrants and another more restricted one for the global majority – and EU migration was just the latest example. But the rhetoric from right-wing politicians was so obviously racist that very few bought into it.
As David Lammy, a Labour member of Parliament, noted, “When you lie with dogs you get fleas,” and the overwhelming majority of black people in Britain rejected the overtures to vote for Brexit.
Given the historic contribution made by the colonies to Britain, the resentment from black communities on the issue of immigration was understandable.
Migration from the Caribbean to the UK is often viewed as voluntary, but that’s only the case if you ignore the fact our ancestors were taken to the islands in chains.
Slave labor is the foundation of British progress, with the profits from goods such as cotton, sugar and tobacco powering the Industrial Revolution. English port cities such as Liverpool and Bristol grew almost entirely out of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the profits run deep throughout society.
After slavery ended, the Caribbean remained in a colonial relationship, providing labor, resources and capital to the mother country. In both world wars, the colonies provided the most precious human resources, spilling their blood in defense of the empire.
So when the call went out to rebuild Britain after World War II, it is no surprise that so many made the journey to help build the welfare state. Before independence, Jamaica – from where the majority on the Windrush were from – was just as integral a part of Britain as London, and those migrating were moving from one part of the empire to another.
Unfortunately, Britain has seen its colonial population as not citizens, but subjects to be used and abused as fits the will of the mother country.
Denying the centrality of the colonies to the progress of Britain is almost a national pastime.
Before anyone migrated from the Caribbean, we were already part of Britain: our blood and toil literally etched into the foundation of the nation. The treatment of the Windrush generation is appalling, but unfortunately not surprising. Racism is as British as a cup of tea.