Written by Professor Adekeye Adebajo
A recent scandal in Britain relating to Caribbean immigrants reminded me of why, having spent 11 years in the country getting a great education, I never thought of staying a day longer. Though largely sheltered from British society’s insidious structural racism by being confined to the dreaming spires of ivory towers, fundamental questions were raised, for example, by the Macpherson report of 1999-2000 which shook the British establishment to its core by declaring – something many ethnic minorities had known for decades – that the British Metropolitan police in London suffered from “institutionalised racism.”
In the decade after Macpherson, African and Asian minorities suffered 1.5 million more stop-and-searches than white Britons. The country’s “Brexit” from the European Union (EU) – the worst self-inflicted wound by a nation in living memory – has also exposed the destructive anti-immigrant sentiment within British society, with Islamophobic attacks increasing after the 2016 referendum.
The “Windrush generation” – named after the boat Empire Windrush – were Caribbean nationals whose parents had migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1971, welcomed by the government to fill post-war labour shortages and guaranteed the right to British citizenship. Many who had travelled as infants on their parents’ passports did not have travel documents. In the past four years, the British Home Office – acting like a Dickensian “Circumlocution Office” – required these arrivals from half a century ago to prove that they had not left Britain for two consecutive years, to produce four pieces of documentary evidence for every year they had resided in Britain, while the ministry inexplicably destroyed an archive of old landing slips that could have proved the arrival of many of these migrants. Evidence such as decades of national insurance and tax payments, driving licenses, marriage certificates, and school records were routinely ignored as insufficient proof of citizenship.
As home secretary, the current prime minister, Theresa May, set out deliberately – through overwhelmingly supported draconian immigration acts in 2014 and 2016 – to create a “hostile environment”. In a reversion to the worst tactics of the Nazi era, employers, landlords, banks, schools, and hospitals were turned into border guards, asked to check the papers of immigrants under the threat of hefty fines or even jail terms. Such Orwellian tactics sometimes led to black people facing discrimination in renting apartments in an atavistic reversion to an era in which blacks and Irish were not welcome as tenants. A brutal “deport first, appeal later” policy was adopted. In an action more befitting a banana republic than a constitutional monarchy, the government had vans drive into immigrant areas with billboards bearing the sign “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.” May talked derisorily, in xenophobic tones, about “citizens of nowhere,” threatening to force companies to publish lists of foreign employees.
As prime minister, David Cameron, had acted before her, May set our mechanistically to reduce the number of immigrants to Britain to the arbitrary figure of 100,000 annually, regardless of the human cost of making black British citizens destitute: as irrational and populist a policy as can be imagined. She also bizarrely insisted that students be included in these numbers. Home Office bureaucrats were given targets for deportations, sometimes breaking the law to achieve their quotas.
These policies have had a devastating impact on the lives of over 5,000 law-abiding Caribbean immigrants who have lived in Britain for decades. Many have faced Kafkaesque situations in which they have overnight lost their citizenship, jobs, homes, benefits, pensions, access to public services, been jailed, and been deported. A few examples illustrate the callous inhumanity of these policies: 63-year old Albert Thompson, came to England from Jamaica as a teenager and lived in London for 44 years, was evicted from his council house, and denied treatment for cancer from the National Health Service (NHS), the core of whose staff had ironically been built up by immigrants from the Commonwealth; 61-year old Paulette Wilson, who cooked in the British House of Commons won a last-minute reprieve at Heathrow airport from deportation to Jamaica which she had never set foot in since the age of eight and in which she had no surviving relatives; 66-year old Michael Braithwaite, a Barbadian-born Briton, arrived in 1961 when he was nine, and had lived all his life in the country, having three British children and five grandchildren, when he lost his job as a result of a lack of immigration documentation; and Jamaican-born 64-year old Briton, Renford McIntyre, arrived in Britain at 14 and became homeless after he lost his job in similar circumstances. In most of these cases, the embarrassment of media exposure led to a stay of eviction and speedy approvals.
Her Majesty’s government’s response to this scandal has been as inept as its handling of it. The so-called “liberal” Tory home secretary, Amber Rudd, tried at first to blame her staff at the Home Office. She claimed to have been “heartbroken” by the plight of Caribbean immigrants, even though she had provided only evasive answers to journalists before the scandal broke. Rudd had actually followed in May’s draconian footsteps by insisting that employers publish lists of their foreign-born employers. She was forced to resign in April under relentless parliamentary questioning from the Labour Party. A reasonable request from Caribbean leaders at the Commonwealth summit, in the same month, for Theresa May to discuss the Windrush scandal was contemptuously turned down, again underlining the inequalities of a club in which the wealth has always been far from common.
This has not been Britain’s finest hour. All of these events have ironically coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in which he warned of race wars if immigration to Britain continued. Today, 86% of the country’s population is still lily-white, and half of black and Asian minorities are concentrated in the three big cities of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. The immense contributions of Caribbean citizens to British life – in the arts, politics, literature, food, and sports – have rarely been properly recognised, except superficially through annual Notting Hill carnivals. Boris Johnson, the Falstaffian British foreign secretary, epitomized the continuing prejudice at the heart of the British establishment, when he noted that Caribbean people in the country were “multiplying like flies”.
The tired cliché about Britain’s “sense of fair play” was never evidenced by a nation that had colonized a quarter of the earth’s surface, populating countries with its citizens uninvited, while ruling over them without their consent as a “heaven’s breed” of imperial supermen. The irony of the hostility towards citizens of countries that Britain had colonized (and benefited from their slave plantations in the Caribbean) is thus rather rich. Even The Economist declared the maltreatment of the Windrush generation to be “a shameful chapter in Britain’s history.” The sun did finally set on the British empire, but its sins continue to linger in the Mother Country.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in Business Day (South Africa) on 25 June 2018.