When I used to read stories of unjustified deportations from the UK and detentions on UK borders I would feel horrified and outraged by them, but admittedly also feel a sense of distance and relief that my life was unaffected by them. Yet last week when I read about the many, many people of Caribbean descent who have been faced with the same threats in the Windrush deportation crisis, they struck a particular cord with me. And my first thought was of my mum.
As someone who may well be one of the 50,000 citizens facing the risk of deportation, the immediacy of the threat threw me into a frenzy of stress I’ve never experienced before. We’re going on holiday together in June – would she be allowed back into the UK? I moved out years ago – what would happen to the house I grew up in? She’s an A&E ward manager at a major London hospital – what would the A&E ward do without her? Not least, what would our whole family and friends do without her?
My mum’s right to stay here unbothered doesn’t need to be explained or justified, but it’s interesting that the arc of her life in the UK isn’t too different from others I’ve been reading about online: she moved here from a Commonwealth country (Jamaica) as a child (she was 13) with an older relative (my grandmother) who had been offered work in the UK (as a seamstress, although many of the UK’s nationalised industries recruited their workforce from Commonwealth countries at the time), studied in UK institutions (south London for secondary school, LSE for university) before getting job in UK (NHS nurse) and has worked ever since.
Being born and raised in London, I rarely, if ever, think of us as an immigrant family. We have our personal quirks and traditions, but we’re as British as any of my friends’ families. Yet experiences like these remind us that our (perhaps complacent) sense of belonging is not always enough to make us feel welcome to stay. Given the UK’s enthusiasm in building better relationships with Commonwealth countries in a post-Brexit world, I’d assumed that Commonwealth descendants in the UK would have received greater treatment and protection in a pre-Brexit climate. Although horrible, this experience has been enlightening for me to realise that no matter how British we think we are, without a long-running UK heritage, we should never assume we are protected and we are always at risk.
That this crisis was able to go on as long as it did is outrageous. And maybe if a petition demanding amnesty for anyone who was a minor who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971 hadn’t been fervently backed by opposition politicians and hadn’t gone viral (currently on 166,000 signatures, and counting), it would have gone on for a lot longer. Prime Minister Theresa May and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd have apologised and promised that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.
Prime Minister May has also said that anyone left out of pocket will be compensated, which would be an acceptable offer if this was just a clerical error. But compensation should go further, as this low-ball offer does nothing to make up for the levels of stress and anxiety caused by poorly thought-through policies which she herself signed off during her time as Home Secretary. If it weren’t for the overwhelming support from the public and politicians bold enough to push for better, I’d be losing faith in the “Global Britain” that our government is so keen for us to be a part of.