The government’s apology to 18 people from the Caribbean who were wrongfully detained and removed from the UK as part of the Windrush scandal is a step in the right direction, but rings rather hollow given the true scale and nature of the underlying problems.
Despite the significant public exposure of its failings - its high error rate, appalling treatment and disrespect of all who come into contact with the immigration system - the government wants to portray the mistreatment of Windrush residents as an isolated incident, rather than the result of a deliberate and systemic exclusion and a culture of disbelief, driving refusal and deportation targets. The suggestion that only 18 people merit an apology is laughable – the government itself is investigating another 164 cases and what faith can any of us have in its analysis when the Home Office is known to have a significant error rate.
The focus has been on people from the Caribbean but the problem is far wider and deeper affecting many long-term residents from other areas, particularly but not exclusively other Commonwealth countries. Proper independent scrutiny and review of Home Office decision making and procedures is required. We need a properly funded independent outreach programme and free legal advice to help identify all those whose lives have been ripped apart by the brutal system that has been developed in the UK. Many people have been driven onto the streets or forced into a twilight existence. The new Home Office dedicated Windrush Unit is unable to meet the original promise of resolving cases in two weeks, and as people wait for a response they remain destitute, unable to work or find accommodation. Charitable support is what keeps many victims of the Windrush Scandal going in the absence of any interim payments or support.
As yet there is no clarity on the compensation scheme, and here we may have some sympathy – how can a fair price be set for the disruption, ill health and monumental suffering that has been caused. Families ripped asunder. People driven out of their homes. Jobs lost. Savings swallowed up. Debts incurred. Emotional and physical health destroyed.
Over 2,000 people have now been seen by the Home Office Windrush Unit but those of us in the field know that there are many more affected and academics have estimated that the number could be up to 50,000. Some will not yet know of the time bomb that awaits when they seek medical help or change of job and find that the new ‘hostile environment’ measures are there to ensnare them. The ‘hostile environment’ doesn’t apply just to long-term residents from the Windrush generation: for example, thousands of young British born children entitled to register as British citizens under the British Nationality Act of 1981 are prevented from doing so because they are required to pay an extortionate fee of over £1,000 – these are young people with no rights to work or study, wasting their potential because of government profiteering. The cost of processing applications is significantly less than the fee.
Extortionate fees are pushing many individuals into becoming ‘undocumented’, as are Home Office errors and delays. Without the right paperwork – and that’s what being undocumented means - individuals lose their jobs and homes and often face deportation to countries with which they now have little if any relationship. Meanwhile they are denied services and face detention – in appalling conditions, without time limit or judicial oversight - and at huge cost to the public purse, as well as to the individual.
This is the context in which the Windrush scandal came to be; the government wants to reduce it to an apology to 18 people – a convenient carpet to sweep the problem under. The ‘hostile environment’ and the negative Home Office culture are the problems that must be addressed to create a fair system that respects individuals and their rights. You cannot create a ‘hostile environment’ without contaminating the whole of society by creating mistrust, discrimination, exclusion and misery – exposed at its worst in the Windrush scandal. It’s going to take more than an apology to put this right.
Sally Daghlian OBE is the CEO of Praxis Community Projects, a charity providing legal and practical support to migrants at-risk. She has 25 years’ experience of refugee and migration issues, including as Chair of the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)