Black history month: How we are helping the Windrush Justice Clinic

Article 22 October 2021 Experience

A fortuitous ferry crossing

Rather fortuitously, I moved to Northern Ireland about six months before COVID-19 struck. Instead of lockdown in my old London flat with its small garden backing onto a tube line (which had been great for the morning commute) I had lakes, mountains, beaches, farms and a winter wetsuit!

Like countless others who moved to the great outdoors in other constituent parts of the UK as a result of the pandemic, I could make this move because Northern Island is part of the United Kingdom. I didn’t need a visa or any formal immigration documents – though there will be a record somewhere of my ferry crossing – maybe more than one record as we missed the first ferry.

It struck me that there are comparisons to be drawn from my relatively minor move in 2019 with the major journey of those who emigrated to the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. We now know them as the Windrush generation after the ‘MV Empire Windrush’, one of the first ships which carried those wishing to move to the UK to help fill post-war labour shortages.

The similarity is that they too could make this move because their home countries were then part of the British Commonwealth. They were British subjects.

The Windrush scandal

The 1971 Immigration Act brought an end to this ability to live and work in the UK. It granted Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK indefinite leave to remain but going forward other British passport holders who wished to make this move could only do so with a work permit and proof that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK. So the government put the Windrush generation’s indefinite leave to remain on statutory footing, but like my situation did not keep or issue any records. In fact in 2010 it destroyed their landing cards.

Fast forward to 2018 and media coverage of the Windrush scandal. As part of its robust stance on immigration (to put it mildly), the Home Office began to detain, deport and deny the basic rights of the Windrush generation. People who had lived in the UK for half a century and more were suddenly required to prove that they had a right to remain in the UK or leave. Many simply did not have passports and could not provide documentary proof that they moved to the UK before 1973 or for each year that they had lived in the UK as demanded by the Home Office. Yes, in 2018, people (many of whom were elderly) who could have been our friends, neighbours or colleagues lost medical care, their jobs, their homes and their freedom almost overnight.

If in 50 years’ time (aged uh hum…) I’m still in Northern Ireland and I, or my children, are asked to prove that we arrived there in 2019 or face detention, deportation and destitution, I’m not certain we could do so.

Theresa May has since apologised and following a government review – which is said by some commentators to show the scandal was not an accident but a result of government policy against non-white immigration (one wonders how they chose their victims) – the government has set up the Windrush Compensation Scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme does not appear to be fit for purpose. For example, the application form is 18 pages long, the application guidance runs to 45 pages, the scheme rules are set out over 46 pages and there is limited access to affordable legal advice. There is also a backlog in applications for people in real need of compensation and what’s more, the scheme is administered by the Home Office itself rather than independently (yes, the same department who very recently oversaw the 2018 Windrush scandal is determining whether an applicant is eligible for compensation and, if so, how much). Somebody missed ‘Justice 101’.

How we are helping

I’m not an immigration law specialist (and should apologise for any legal inaccuracies above – I’m blaming the need for brevity and – hopefully – impact), but I would like to help if I can. And I will be able to because Withers is going to be providing pro bono support to the Windrush Justice Clinic which provides free advice to potential applicants to the Windrush Compensation Scheme.

While 2018 may only just qualify as “history”, UK Black History Month is a great opportunity to announce this.

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