Today is the UK’s first ever day of commemoration for Windrush migrants, which was announced following a huge scandal which enveloped the government after it emerged many Caribbean-born residents were being treated as illegal immigrants.
It’s a significant date: 22 June marks 70 years since the landing of the MV Empire Windrush in Britain, the boat that brought many Caribbean people to the UK.
Around 500 migrants were on board when it arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, who came to help the re-building of post-war Britain, taking on key jobs across British society.
On Friday, more than 2,000 people gathered for a service at Westminster Abbey marking 70 years since the arrival of the Windrush generation in Britain.
Hymns including Amazing Grace were played on steel drums as the invited guests made their way into the church.
Baroness Floella Benjamin was applauded as she briefly danced in the nave to the music. The Liberal Democrat peer and patron of the Windrush Foundation said afterwards that she felt “joy”, adding: “I was floating, like a bird, free.”
The day is part of an attempt by the government to recover after it emerged that the children of Windrush generation migrants were targeted by the Home Office in recent years, as part of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.
Some were wrongly deported and denied access to the NHS, work and housing despite having a legal right to be in the UK.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who faced fierce criticism for her role in shaping the policy when she was Home Secretary, attended the Government-funded service on Friday to mark the moment hundreds of Caribbean migrants stepped off the ship.
Further guests include Baroness Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered black teenager Stephen, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and shadow home secretary Diane Abbot.
Addressing those gathered, The Reverend Canon Joel Edwards referenced the scandal that has seen some Windrush wrongly face deportation from Britain.
He said: “In recent months the word ‘Windrush’ has evoked a great deal of emotion and even anger across our political landscape. In this service of thanksgiving, Windrush means more than migration.”
I think it’s a moment to celebrate the people who gave so much and took so little, but it is a little bittersweet David Lammy MP
He described the Windrush as having “gifted” Britain with many leaders in the worlds of politics, business, education, music and sport.
To the laughter of those listening he also acknowledged the influence of the Caribbean on British cuisine naming much-loved foods including “rice and peas, jerk chicken and Levi Roots sauce in our supermarkets”.
Rev Edwards acknowledged hardships faced by the Windrush generation.
He said: “Settling down hasn’t been plain sailing. The children of Windrush have experienced over-representation in Britain’s prisons and mental health institutions. Knife crimes.
“Underachievement in education and the job market. Settlement has meant racism, sometimes too much policing and not enough protection. And Stephen Lawrence.”
Looking to towards an often uncertain future he added: “Windrush resilience arises, supremely”.
A short drama recounting the story of how Caribbean migrants were invited to “The Motherland” to help rebuild post-war Britain was played out. Actors re-enacted the journey many faced leaving their native islands to board the Empire Windrush.
An event was also be held at the Essex docks where the landmark nautical journey concluded.
Labour’s David Lammy, who organised a campaign on behalf of those affected, said the scandal has left British-Caribbeans feeling like “second class citizens”.
“I think it’s a moment to celebrate the people who gave so much and took so little, but it is a little bittersweet,” he said. I think the Windrush scandal of late has left a very nasty taste in the mouth and there will be many Britons who feel sad that that has happened.”
Abbott has also called on the Government to reveal the full extent of the scandal and to publish figures on the number of people affected.
The politician, who has written to the Home Secretary, said: “Warm words about commemorating the Windrush generation are not enough.
“Our fellow citizens from the Windrush generation and their families have a right to know how many people have suffered at the hands of the Home Office.”
The Government effort to right the wrongs of the scandal continued this week with a Home Office announcement that Wendy Williams, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary, and a former Chief Crown Prosecutor, will oversee a review of the lessons learned from Windrush.
More than 2,000 people have been provided documentation since April by the dedicated Windrush taskforce, the Home Office said, helping them to demonstrate their right to residence.
Under the new Windrush scheme, which offers free citizenship for Commonwealth citizens who arrived before 1973 and children who joined their parents before they turned 18, 285 people have so far been granted citizenship, they added.
So far the Home Office has made contact with 11 people who may have been wrongfully removed from the UK as a result of the fiasco.