With 2021 around the corner, the vast majority of Windrush compensation scheme claimants have yet to receive any payouts.
Recent figures suggest just 15% have been awarded, while the human cost of the catastrophe cannot be quantified.
This year has been unlike any other: the resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on systemic injustice far and wide, including inequalities perpetuated by the UK government.
It has been two years since the Home Office returned 65-year-old Vernon Vanriel to the UK from Jamaica, after refusing him entry and leaving him stranded on the island 13 year prior to that. He has yet to receive compensation and has become increasingly lonely and depressed.
“I’m starting to put a big question mark on whether I even feel British any more,” he said, “simply because of the way the government has treated me and others affected by the Windrush scandal.
“They wronged me by not allowing me into the country for 13 years. They’ve ruined my life and now find it hard to pay people what is deserved in a timely manner rather than waiting until they’re dead.”
Recent Home Office figures show 77 claims have been made through the scheme for people who have already died, but only three have resulted in payments so far.
After an emotional reunion with his brother and sister at Gatwick airport in 2018, reality set in for Vanriel, who is still without compensation and more “alienated” than ever before. Last June, he was fitted with a pacemaker and is currently taking medication including antidepressants.
Vanriel currently lives in sheltered housing on account of his health – but has been told by the local council that he’s not allowed to host his 22-year-old son, who was born in Jamaica, for longer than three weeks. If Vanriel travels overseas to visit his son, he’d have to return in a few weeks or risk losing his London flat.
Following pressure from campaigners, earlier this month the Home Office announced an overhaul of the compensation scheme that means claimants could now receive as much as £100,000. Higher awards will be available for those in exceptional circumstances.
“I consider my circumstances to be exceptional and hope my offer will reflect that,” said Vanriel. “I’m 65 years old with nothing to call my own except the clothes on my back.”
After seeking legal advice, he lodged his application with the Windrush compensation on July 13, 2020, three days after his 65th birthday. Last Tuesday, he received a phone call from the Home Office and an officer told him to expect a letter in the post regarding his compensation that would hopefully “put a smile on his face”.
The Home Office has ruined my life and now find it hard to pay people what is deserved in a timely manner rather than waiting until they’re dead.Vernon Vanriel
“I’ve heard of people waiting 18 months and still not being paid,” he added. “I think the fact that I have a solicitor dealing with it and continually pestering them to make a decision or give an update has a lot to do with it. People who don’t have legal representation are being left on the shelf. They’re finding things a damn sight harder.”
The changes to the Windrush compensation scheme will apply retrospectively and will make a “real difference” to people’s lives, home secretary Priti Patel said in the Commons earlier this month, adding: “I’ve always promised to listen and act to ensure the victims of Windrush have received the maximum compensation they deserve, and it is my mission to correct the wrongs of the past and I will continue to work with the Windrush working group to do exactly that.”
The scandal erupted in 2018 when British citizens, mostly from the Caribbean, were wrongly detained, deported or threatened with deportation, despite having the right to live in Britain. Many lost homes and jobs and were denied access to healthcare and benefits.
Michael Braithwaite’s life was ripped apart by the scandal and he is still awaiting compensation three years later. Like Vanriel, the 68-year-old has enlisted the help of solicitors to secure it but has struggled to collate the vast, arguably unreasonable amount of evidence required by the Home Office to support his claim.
“The government said they’re going to right the wrongs of the Windrush Scandal – but those have not been put right today and now we’re going into 2021,” he told HuffPost UK.
“They have treated us Black people who came here like garbage at the back door. I am appalled and I’m hurt, deeply hurt. Over the years, they have kept making promises and not delivering.”
After 16 years of dedicated service as a special needs teaching assistant at a school, Braithwaite was frog-marched off of the premises after suddenly being told he had no right to be in the country he’d lived in for over five decades.
Born in Barbados, Braithwaite migrated to the UK aged nine with his two brothers in 1961. The children travelled on British Caribbean passports to join their parents.
They said they’re going to right the wrongs of the Windrush scandal – but those have not been put right today and now we’re going into 2021.Michael Braithwaite
“They stripped me of my energy. My whole world had gone. I enjoyed my work so much. The scandal took away everything I could ever think of. I endured a lot of stress, dehumanisation and humiliation,” he said.
“I get very emotional when I talk about this, I always do. [...] And every time I do it, it brings back the whole memory of that situation that I was in. I’ve been suffering for years and I know other people have been suffering too. A lot of us have died not receiving compensation. And some people are still waiting on compensation, as well as the families of the people who have passed away.”
He added: “The government should wake up to the situation. The contribution that we [the Windush generation] made to this country is still not being stated; what my parents and people before me came and did as well.
“Christmas 2020 has just passed. I’ll be going to see another year where we are expected to bite our lips and not stand up for our rights. We keep asking for justice and then not being answered. So I would say this to the UK government: you know that without us, this country wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Braithwaite says the battle for justice has weakened him, though he will continue the fight.
“We need more people of a young energy because my energy is not as strong as it used to be,” he said. “We need to have younger people coming in and understanding that it will be a repercussion on them in some way or the other. So everyone needs to get up, stand up and understand what’s happening in this place that you live in.
“I will use every breath in my body to fight and help put things right. We have to keep fighting and we’re not going to stand down. Not just for me – but for people of the future generations coming up in this world.”
Christmas 2020 has just passed. I’ll be going to see another year where we are expected to bite our lips and not stand up for our rights. We keep asking for justice and then not being answered.Michael Braithwaite
Elwaldo Romeo, another survivor of the scandal, submitted his claim for compensation more than a year ago and says he has yet to receive a response, never mind a financial award.
A decade ago, the 64-year-old was told by the Home Office he was facing detention and should return to Antigua, a country he left 59 years earlier at the age of four.
“How more British can I be?” he said. “I put my compensation claim in and, so far, I’ve not been offered anything. It’s the system; the system is very slow and laborious.
“It’s not too bad for myself because I’m employed, I’m earning money. But for those who are destitute, those who really need the funds, those who are in rented accommodation and have got all these bills behind them, I think they are the ones that the Home Office should look at quickly.
“I once asked a question about rehousing people [who are in need]. And I was told that the Home Office can’t rehouse people, it stands on local councils, and yet the Home Office actually influenced the councils taking Windrush victims’ homes away. So it’s not a fair system.”
Likening the situation to the transatlantic slave trade, he added: “The Home Office has the right to change things as and when they please. It’s a situation where the perpetrator now dictates what the client or the person who’s been affected gains out of this situation. And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Romeo is calling for the government to be “more open and respectful in how they treat people”.
“Although she did not instigate the Windrush scandal, Priti Patel is there to do a job and I think she’s doing it very poorly. She has no compassion for the people she’s dealing with, and if she wants people to come forward, she needs to look at it properly and look at where these people are coming from.”
Speaking to the Commons Home Affairs Committee on December 9, Martin Forde QC said the Home Office’s deportation flights were “seriously undermining” its work on the compensation scheme. A chartered flight to Jamaica was scheduled for December 2 and widely condemned by campaigners and celebrities.
Forde said people affected by the scandal “don’t trust the Home Office at all” and are “genuinely scared”, which could be deterring some from applying for compensation.
The lawyer, who was appointed as the department’s independent adviser as it brought in the Windrush claims scheme, told MPs there were problems with the department’s “image and its portrayal”.
Romeo echoed this: “If you’re going to put people on planes and deport people, there’s going to be a lot of people that’s going to resent putting their names forward. So it’s one way of keeping people quiet.”
Glenda Caesar, who arrived in the UK as a baby in 1961, first found out she wasn’t classed a British citizen after she tried to visit her dying mother in the Caribbean in 1998.
In 2009, things became even more serious for her; the mum-of-four – who also has 11 grandchildren – was sacked from her part-time job as a GP practice administrator because of her lack of citizenship.
Caesar was then forced to rely on her children for support. Since the scandal, she now has a British passport and a naturalisation certificate – but she is still awaiting compensation and is justifiably discontented.
“I was branded a liar and blamed for something that wasn’t my doing. And then I’ve been put through a process where I’ve had to prove myself [to get compensation] to a government that has every information on me – they shouldn’t have to put me through this,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I was very happy, me and my family. And then to have your livelihood taken away from you is the worst that anyone can do, aside from taking your home away from you. It stopped me from working, it took away my livelihood, it put me into the state of depression, of mental illness; it made me judge myself as a mother where I put my child into a situation that should have been avoided and no mother should have put her child in that situation. The list could go on and on.”
Last December, she rejected the government’s £22,000 of compensation, dismissing it as “an insult”. Another offer was made in July, which she also turned it down because it still didn’t reflect the losses she had suffered.
“I sent it back and waited a very long time. I wasn’t prepared to wait because I felt I shouldn’t need to; I shouldn’t be given deadlines – this is the government’s mistake [so] I should be setting them deadlines,” she said.
As part of Windrush Lives, a campaigning group, Caesar has been at the forefront of the national campaign to raise awareness about the scandal, demanding justice for those affected.
“We have been in constant contact with the Home Office, back and forth to fight, to get improvements on the impact on compensation payments because what we found is that across the board, they were giving everybody the same amount for impact on life which was £7,000 pounds,” she explained.
“It didn’t matter how complex your case was – they were offering everybody the same amount. It didn’t go above £10,000; the amounts ranged between £3,250 and £7,000. So we had meetings with ministers and politicians, and fought for changes to be made, which has been now. We’ll have to wait and see what the impact is.”
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