Empire Windrush ship

Empire Windrush: can we see your papers?

You’ve never felt the cold on your legs. You’re a child on a boat. It’s 1968. The colonial mother country needs your parent’s labour. Despite the talk of “rivers of blood”, they heed the call.

The years pass. You’re British, you can’t remember your country of birth. School, work, marriage, kids. Life happens and you’ve got used to the cold.

Can we see your papers? A routine check by your employer. What papers? You don’t have any papers – there’s a boat ticket your parents had.

Unknown to you, the landing cards for the boat were in the basement of a government office. The government destroyed them because they took up too much space. An employee had suggested digitising the cards but was ignored. It’s 2010. Now the government has no way to check your status.

Then the government decide it’s not their job to check anyway. It’s yours. You don’t have any papers. In the deliberately “hostile environment” for immigrants, you lose your job. Then you lose your driving licence.

You can’t claim benefits. You have no income. You become unwell. Your GP refers you for hospital treatment. The NHS nurse tells you the cancer treatment you need will cost £54,000 if you’re not British.

You are required to register at an immigration centre every month. At each visit you make your case to the man behind the glass. He says you’re not on the system. One day they don’t let you leave and take you to a detention centre. Then they take you to a small airport. You’re leaving by plane, not boat.

You’re ‘home’ but alone. It’s 2018. You discover that the government of your birth country has been warning the British government for two years that it was deporting British citizens not illegal immigrants. Nothing happens.

Then the British press get hold of the story. Now the government are worried they might look a bit nasty. It’s getting politically inconvenient. It’s time for an apology.

Quite appropriately, the apology is issued by the minister responsible for destroying the landing cards, creating a hostile environment for immigrants, and shifting the burden of proof from the government to the citizen. When you lost your job, were refused healthcare, and were separated from your family, this minister was either the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister.

“The Windrush generation helped to build the country that we are today and I want to dispel any impression that my government is in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those in the Caribbean who’ve worked a life here … I want to apologise to you today because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused.”

Theresa May, Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, 17 April 2018


The above post amalgamates the experiences of several citizens, as referenced below. The government do not currently have figures for the number of people who may have been deported to Commonwealth countries for not producing papers, despite living in the UK legally for decades.

Michael Braithwaite, 66
Braithwaite arrived from Barbados in 1961, aged nine.

“We landed and that’s the first time I had the feeling of cold air on my legs.”

In 2017 he lost his job as a teaching assistant because he had no papers to prove his citizenship.

“I never applied for a British passport. We thought we were British.”

“I feel like an alien, what’s that word they use for people who are on the run, a fugitive. I felt that there would be a tap on my shoulder and someone would say to me ‘you don’t belong here’ you need to be put away.”

Source: The Guardian and BBC Newsnight, 16 April 2018

Sonia Williams, 56
Williams arrived from Barbados in 1975, aged 13.

“I came here as a minor to join my mum, dad, my sister, and my brother. My mum’s got citizen, my dad had right-to-remain, so I just presumed I had all that because I was leaving Barbados to come and live with my family. I wasn’t just coming on a holiday.”

In 2014, Williams was asked for official ID by her employer to “update their records.” Six months later they made her redundant. In 2016 the DVLA took away her driving licence.

“I can’t drive, I can’t work, I can’t claim benefits, I can’t do anything.”

Source: BBC Newsnight, 16 April 2018

Albert Thompson, 63
Thompson (not his real name) arrived in 1973 from Jamaica, as a teenager.

“I’ve been living in the UK for the past 44, 45 years. This country used to be the mother country for Jamaica. We were ruled by this country. I wasn’t a stowaway who came to this country.”

Thompson worked as a mechanic for 44 years. He was denied NHS treatment for prostate cancer because he couldn’t provide evidence of his citizenship.

“One of the nurses, she didn’t even take me into a room, just in the walkway, and she was talking to me and she says if I cannot produce a passport or visa, then I have to pay. First of all she says £53,000, then she says £54,000. I felt like I was going to pass out really. I said £54,000 I don’t have it. Not even 54 pence.”

Source: The Guardian

Paulette Wilson, 61
Wilson arrived in 1968 from Jamaica, aged 10. She went on to work as a chef at the House of Commons. In 2015, Wilson received a letter saying she had “no right” to be in the country and must register every month at Solihull immigration centre. When she registered on 18 October 2017, she was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre for a week, then Heathrow airport for deportation to Jamaica. A last-minute intervention from her MP and a charity prevented her removal.

“When they took me to this place near the airport this morning, I woke up and I thought, literally, I was going to be put on a plane. But I went for an interview with the Jamaican High Commissioner and she said to me that I’m not going to be put on a plane. And two minutes after that I was told I was released.”

Source: The Guardian, BBC, and BBC Midlands News, 25 October 2017

Junior Green, 61
Green arrived in 1958 from Jamaica with his mother. He was 15 months old.

James Clayton, BBC reporter: “Do you have any childhood memories of Jamaica?”

Junior Green: “No, I’ve got none whatsoever, I’m an Englishman. I’ve had all my education in this country, I’ve worked in this country, I’ve lived in this country, I’m an Englishman. I’ve never left the country, 60 years.”

In March 2017 Junior did leave the country, to visit his mother who was unwell in Jamaica. When she passed away in June 2017 her body was repatriated to Britain, but Junior was barred by the government from flying into Britain and missed the funeral.

James Clayton, BBC reporter: “Junior was stuck in a country alien to him.”

Doreen Green [Junior’s sister]: “For him being left there by himself, no immediate family, I can just imagine what he was going through, you know, it must have been very hard for him.”

Source: BBC Newsnight, 17 April 2018

Mark Brantley, Foreign Minister, St Kitts and Nevis

“When the Windrush generation came here, they were not immigrants properly construed, they were coming as British subjects, they were coming from British colonies, we were all part of the British Empire, when they came. And we would have come 40 or 50 years ago to help to rebuild this country after World War II.”

“This issue has been knocking about for more than two years … they [the UK government] were told.”

“The media here [in the UK] played a critical role in making this issue topical.”

“Your Prime Minister here, Theresa May, is perhaps best placed to deal with this fiasco because clearly she was Home Secretary when many of the rules went into effect that now are having these disastrous consequences for so many people.”

Source: BBC Newsnight, 17 April 2018


Image credits
Empire Windrush, By Royal Navy official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons