On June 21, 1948, the British troopship HMT Empire Windrush anchored in Essex, UK. The ship carried over 1,000 passengers, 802 of whom hailed from Caribbean territories under British control at the time — including Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana — but Jamaicans comprised the majority, with just over 500 of them on board. They carried with them hopes and ambitions for a better life, having been “invited” by the British government to help fill a post-war labour shortage.
Now, half a century later, the British press is filled with the heartrending personal stories of this older generation of immigrants, who have found themselves harassed, deprived of numerous benefits and even losing their liberty as a result of a change in UK immigration laws.
They arrived to the UK from British colonies as legitimate British citizens, but have been caught up in the right-wing government's thrust to weed out illegal immigrants under the so-called “hostile environment” policy.
Changes in UK immigration rules in 2012 and 2014 in particular (presided over by then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister Theresa May) demanded that the “Windrush generation” prove they had the right to remain in Britain by providing documentary evidence. To add insult to injury, it was revealed that landing cards issued when the immigrants first arrived, which could prove how long they had lived in the UK, were destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.
The slowly unfolding saga has been met with growing outrage, bafflement and hurt feelings among Caribbean netizens — especially among those with older relatives living in the UK.
At the same time, the Windrush story has helped Jamaicans and others across the region to learn about — and confront — a period in colonial history hitherto little known or discussed. Now, most Caribbean millennials who follow the news know what the name “Windrush” signifies.
One online article noted that the scandal has also drawn back the veil on an aspect of history that is not much explored in the UK either:
Britain has an ignoble history of exploiting Caribbean people when they were ‘useful’, then casting them aside as insufficiently ‘British’ when they were not.
Recent reports of the current Home Office crackdown on Commonwealth elders come as a horrifying surprise, but they tell of a history we have not faced. How did we get here?
There was a sense of injustice among Jamaican commentators. Some comments were quite bitter:
The British bring us to the Caribbean to do unpaid labour and sexual services. Then they have us live here and work to pay taxes to them & keep them rich. Then they take us in their army to fight in WW2. Then they take us to England to rebuild it. Then they have us deported.
— Father stretch my strands (@nnboogie) April 18, 2018
On Facebook, a Jamaican with British heritage discussed the vexed question of identity and documentation, even within Jamaica itself:
Lots of discussion about the Windrush generation being asked to prove their status. But right now we have plenty people in Jamaica who would be hard pressed to prove their status as Jamaicans. Talking about unregistered births, no voter ID, no passport, no land title, no TRN, no NIS, no bank account. This is more common than you think.
One commentator reacted to the news that Windrush documents had been destroyed:
How wicked can government officials be, to consciously destroy the records of how their ‘subjects’ from their former colonies in the West Indies arrived in Britain and now are asking them and their descendants to prove their ongoing residency. What a piece a dishonesty; robbing the people of their right and preying on their vulnerabilities including lack of citizenship on the part of some.
Old documents are destroyed every day around the world – but I'm certain if these documents were deemed relevant to the ‘image’ of Britain they'd have found another way to store this information. It is a significant part of the history of the modern Black presence in Britain and the Caribbean. Yes, it matters. This is yet another (now) missing link in the historical movement of Black people who depend on ‘authorities’ to record, hold-for-safekeeping(?) and tell our story.
The Windrush era is not past tense but present continuous. We need to take an honest look at Mrs. May's policies like creating a hostile environment for illegal immigrants and refusing to meet the Caribbean Prime Ministers until forced to do so. We must stop believing in British fairplay, honour and all that[.] We need to understand foulplay and all of the elements of the Empire. At the same time we cannot stress the need to fix our country/countries. People take liberty with us because we are indebted and have not calculated what we are owed. Today there is another damaging report about the tribulation and racist vestiges associated with the 25 year matter of justice for Stephen Lawrence.
On the positive side, Dominica-based journalist praised the black British politicians who were vocal on the Windrush issue:
REFRESHING to see #Caribbean rooted MPs @DavidLammy @HackneyAbbott behaving in the #PublicInterest and pro-#HumanRights God bless the #Windrush generation. CC @theresa_may @jeremycorbyn @vincecable @AmberRuddHR @ChukaUmunna @Keir_Starmer https://t.co/K3CRNbgnjN
— Nester Phillip (@ObserverNotes) April 16, 2018
What about the people who were already deported?
Eventually, the British Home Office announced that “members of the Windrush generation who arrived in the UK before 1973 will be eligible for free citizenship.”
While this move was generally (but cautiously) welcomed, newspaper editorials such as the Jamaica Observer's noted the importance of addressing concerns about the deportation of elderly Jamaicans since 2014, an issue that was raised by Member of Parliament (MP) David Lammy. Another Jamaican shared on Facebook:
The Windrush generation and their descendants are now to get citizenship. I wonder how many of those deported over the last two decades will qualify?
Will there be a concerted effort by the various governmental agencies to help any so qualified?
If this were a developing country treating people like this, how would they have been described???
Just as the furore over Windrush was reaching its peak, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders happened to be in London for the high profile Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Holness did several media interviews and thanks to Jamaica's current role as CARICOM chair, he and his foreign affairs minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, met with the British prime minister, Theresa May.
The Barbadian High Commissioner to London also spoke eloquently on behalf of the Windrush generation in the British media.
There was some confusion, however, over whether Prime Minister Holness was speaking up for “Jamaicans” or for British citizens, raising the perennial ambivalence over the “diaspora”, a factor that complicates the Windrush issue for many Jamaicans:
The people whose interests we are (rightly) defending are not OUR citizens. They are British. It is exactly this notion that even if you were born in a country – if you are not a member of the majority race i.e. white, you cannot be a citizen which contributed to this injustice.
— PetaAnneBaker (@PA13Baker) April 18, 2018
That's why I'm unhappy with policymakers’ tendency to focus on what Diaspora can do for “us” (in country of origin or ancestry). We need to pay attention to what is happening to those who identify as Jamaican/ Caribbean & support their struggles in their adopted/ birth countries
— PetaAnneBaker (@PA13Baker) April 18, 2018
Some Jamaicans, on the other hand, were not quite sure Holness had hit the right tone:
Holness telling the #WindrushGeneration in the diaspora that they “are not stateless” and will “always have a home in Jamaica” is NOT the reassurance they are seeking. LOL
— Gavin (@Goffeman) April 20, 2018
Meanwhile, with a deportation charter flight from the UK scheduled for next week, there are some reports that members of the Windrush generation may be on board, and protests to stop the deportation flight are being planned. UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd has resigned over the scandal. There is no doubt that Windrush remains a “live” and highly politicised issue in Britain and across the Caribbean.