A post-colonial reckoning: on the Windrush scandal

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Britain’s approach to immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia is in the political spotlight

By: Vidya Ram

On Wednesday, the anger and emotion felt by some MPs during an intense debate in the House of Commons on the Windrush scandal enveloping the British government was palpable. “What we are not talking about so much is race,” said Shabana Mahmood, an opposition Labour MP for Birmingham, who sought to drive home the impact Britain’s tough immigration regime had on its diverse population. “Try making an application, as a British national, to the Home Office with a name that is demonstrably South Asian in origin. I promise that the protection of a British passport will not help one little bit. People will have visited upon them casual humiliation upon humiliation. The system will treat them as if they were dirt on the bottom of its shoe, and that is not good enough.”

David Lammy, a black Labour MP pointed to the painful legacy of empire and slavery: “I remind the House that I am here because you were there. I say ‘you’ metaphorically. The Windrush generation are here because of slavery. The Windrush story is the story of British empire.”

Since the 1970s

The British government’s hopes of containing the scandal over the treatment of Caribbean and other Commonwealth nationals has failed miserably. To recap: the Windrush generation were migrants from the Commonwealth Caribbean who came to Britain before 1973 (1971 legislation no longer gave them automatic settlement after that date). Along with others from the Commonwealth, they and their families were encouraged to Britain to help meet acute labour shortages, whether in the National Health Service (NHS) or beyond. During Wednesday’s debate, one of the MPs reminded his colleagues why Brixton, a trendy part of south London, had become a hub for Caribbean migrants: “They settled in Brixton to be near the job centre because they wanted to work.” Toughening of immigration rules has led to them being penalised and wrongly treated as undocumented illegal immigrants. Shocking stories of families being separated, unable to return to Britain from holidays abroad, denials of life-saving treatment have abounded in recent weeks. While the stories have mostly centred on those from the Caribbean, there are fears that migrants from across the Commonwealth will inevitably have been impacted. “The scandal also includes those who came from many other Commonwealth countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and countries in West Africa,” said Diane Abbott, Labour’s spokesperson on home affairs.

The government — while apologising for the treatment of the Windrush generation and promising acting including compensation — has attempted to treat it as an aberration that had no link with its wider immigration policies. It has tried to make the case that its obsession with cutting migration targets and dealing with illegal migration had nothing whatsoever to do with what had happened. “Measures over many years to tackle illegal immigration are of course a good thing, and we stand by those measures,” insisted Britain’s new (and first ever ethnic minority) Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who took over earlier this week, as the government sought to contain the crisis. While pointing out that it could easily have been one of his family members who had come from Pakistan to have been impacted, Mr. Javid said it had nothing to do with the pursuit of a “compliant environment” to tackle illegal immigration.

Yet these efforts to separate have proved fruitless amid further revelations around the treatment of people legally in Britain or attempting to get to its shores. Last week it emerged that at least a hundred, and potentially more, Indian doctors who had been recruited by NHS trusts up and down the country to fill sorely needed positions, mostly in emergency medicine, had been unable to take up their positions because of visa issues. The Evening Standard, edited by former Treasury head George Osborne, revealed that Prime Minister Theresa May herself had rejected calls for an easing of the visa rules for non-EU doctors.

A separate row is brewing over the treatment of foreign students.

Foreign students

For many years now the British government has been attempting to deport foreign students (and others) based on allegations that they had committed fraud to obtain the English-language qualifications to stay in the U.K. After a 2014 BBC investigation found evidence of fraud at one testing centre, thousands who had gained their qualification via that route at different test centres were accused of fraud, despite what one judge described as “multiple shortcomings and frailties” of the state’s evidence and the “plausible and truthful” statements of students.

Sanam Arora, the chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union U.K., which has been campaigning on behalf students who have faced accusations of fraud believes a “significant population” from India has been impacted. “Our strong suspicion is that thousands could have been wrongly deported or facing difficulties.” She notes that the government’s “deport first, appeal later” strategy, which came into effect around the time students began to face these difficulties, meant there was little recourse open to the students. While she recognises the ambitions of Britain to curb illegal migration, she notes that that the burden of proof — and blame — was swiftly placed on the shoulders of the students rather than the Home Office-approved system that had allowed the fraud to happen. The same applied to past attempts to cull “bogus colleges”, she notes, where rather than treating students as the victims, they were treated by the government and British media as “bogus students”. “The policies of this government are lacking in empathy and concern for the welfare of students,” she says.

Separately, a burgeoning group of South Asians are campaigning against what they believe is a misuse of a clause in legislation to prevent the settlement of criminals. The clause is being used to deny IT professionals, doctors and others long resident in the U.K. the indefinite leave to remain because of minor errors in their tax returns. Hundreds are believed to be impacted.

“I feel vindicated in many ways,” says Lord Karan Bilimoria, a crossbench peer who has been campaigning against the toughening immigration regime, particularly as it pertains to students, for many years now. “I certainly believe that since 2010 the government’s immigration policy has got it very wrong. The word hostile is being used and the atmosphere is blatantly hostile. You just have to look at the catalogue of their policies and the impact it has had.”

Change afoot?

“I do not believe that the term ‘hostile environment’ is in tune with our values as a country,” insisted Mr. Javid in Parliament, referring to the now notorious phase once used by Ms. May. His mollifying words have done little to convince campaigners, however, that fundamental change is on its way. For the first time perhaps, the sturdy thread connecting Britain’s colonial past and legacy, its approach to immigration and its profound human impact, that for decades had been deemed invisible by mainstream politics, has caught the sunlight.

Courtesy The Hindu

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