AFTER pressure from campaigners, the Prime Minister was forced into a U-turn this week after she initially refused to meet Caribbean leaders to discuss the plight of the “Windrush generation” — a reference to the ship Empire Windrush, which, in 1948, brought workers from the West Indies to Britain — who face deportation despite living in Britain for decades (Comment, 13 April).
Thousands of people from the Caribbean, including children who travelled under their parent’s passport, made their home in Britain between 1948 and 1971. Owing to a lack of paperwork, many children of the Windrush generation have struggled to prove that they are in the UK legally, and have faced the prospect of deportation and the suspension of benefits or access to health services.
In a meeting on Tuesday, Theresa May apologised to the 12 Caribbean heads of government for the treatment of the Windrush citizens, and promised that no one would be deported.
The High Commissioner for Barbados, the Revd Guy Hewitt, said on Wednesday that the U-turn “feels like the making of a modern-day miracle”.
He went on: “In less than a week, a story that was, for too long, begging for attention became front-page news, and, in the process, won the hearts of a nation and engaged the mind of a government.
“The apology and recent pronouncements by the UK Government on the Windrush generation are much appreciated, and reflect the spirit of the Commonwealth to work as a family and uphold fundamental human rights.”
The Government’s initial refusal to address the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which took place in London this week, drew criticism from church leaders and others. In a letter to The Times on Tuesday, signed by the Bishops of London, Lichfield, and Southwark, along with prominent Jewish leaders, the signatories called for the British Government to exercise a rule of presumption of innocence in these cases. They wrote: “Those who grew up in this country with the official line that they were the equal of any are still being told to prove it.”
The first black bishop in the Church of England, the Rt Revd Wilfred Wood, who was born and grew up in Barbados, described the Government’s actions as a “betrayal of Commonwealth immigrants in Britain”. He suggested that for them to “now find themselves hunted, uprooted, and deported like common criminals comes close to being a crime against humanity”.
The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, said that he was appalled that this issue had raised its head in the year marking the 70th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush, the first passenger liner to arrive from the Caribbean. “It has been quite outrageous the way people have been treated. British subjects have been threatened with deportation and the withholding of health services among other things.
“Through my ministry, I’ve come to know quite a lot of people who broadly belong to that generation, and I’m aware of the anxiety they have experienced. These are people who have contributed to the life of our country, our communities, and, indeed, our churches.
“It’s particularly poignant considering we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Windrush. This is an issue that really does go beyond party politics. Christians should certainly not stand for it, but also anyone who cares for this country we all live in.”
Dr Ipgrave, and three other bishops of the diocese of Lichfield — Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, and Stafford — are among those who have signed a petition on the UK Parliament website calling for amnesty for the Windrush immigrants which needed 100,000 signatories for the Government to consider a Commons debate: the total has now reached170,000.
“The petition has grown at such a remarkable rate, which I think shows the strength of feeling in the country,” Dr Ipgrave said. He said that he welcomed the change of heart from the Government, which has apologised and promised to listen to individuals concerns, but said: “The proof will be in the pudding. It must be more than a change of mind from the Home Office: it also needs to be a change of implementation. The burden of proof should be on the Home Office, not the individuals.”
Black Pentecostal leaders called the treatement of West Indian immigrants “hostile and reprehensible”. In a statement on Wednesday, they said: “As followers of Jesus, we deeply lament the pain and fear that 50,000 long-standing residents are experiencing. . . In scripture, God’s call to ‘treat the resident alien the same way you treat the native among you’ (Leviticus 19.34) is clear and unequivocal — and so is the truth that ‘the stranger’ often brings a blessing.
“The descendants of the Windrush generation have brought enormous blessings to our churches and communities, our neighbourhoods and economies.”
The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, also promoted the petition on social media. He tweeted: “The Home Office are out of control. Their ineptitude in record keeping jeopardises hundreds of our people here in London.”
At an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Monday, the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, whose parents arrived in the UK from Guyana and describes himself as a “proud son of the Windrush”, condemned the Government for presiding over a “day of national shame”. He said: “Let us call it as it is: if you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with the far-right rhetoric in this country.”
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, apologised for the “appalling” treatment of the Windrush migrants, and Mrs May met the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, on Tuesday, and promised that no one would be deported. Although she was unable to confirm that no one had already been deported owing to paperwork issues, he said that Mrs May had assured him that the Government was checking its records, and had set up a helpline.
After her meeting with Caribbean leaders on Tuesday, Mrs May said: “I take this issue very seriously. The Home Secretary apologised in the House of Commons yesterday for any anxiety caused. And I want to apologise to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused.”
Mr Hewitt praised the public, and C of E bishops, for their support for the issue, alongside Mr Lammy, Bishop Wood, and Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian journalist who led the investigation into the issue.
He said: “None of this, however, would have been attempted if a small group of us did not feel that the hand of providence was guiding us, which, for me, was affirmed though the support of the Bishops of London, Southwark, Lichfield, Willesden, Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, and Stafford, to name a few.
“We have made considerable progress, but we are not there yet. However, I do feel as if I have been to the mountain and have seen the Promised Land, and therefore I am now optimistic that those elderly West Indian migrants who lived in fear will be soon able to embrace their loved ones and join hands and proclaim that ‘we have overcome, today.’”
Last week, Mr Hewitt called for a “temporary humane intervention to be made until this matter is completely resolved”, ahead of the Commonwealth summit (Comment, 13 April).