As Unite marks Windrush Day today (June 22), the union celebrates the vital contributions of Windrush generation migrants who just over seven decades ago sailed to the UK to help rebuild this country after the war.
Huge swathes of migrants from the Caribbean worked in the NHS and in other public service from the late 1940s onwards. And even as they helped rebuild post-war Britain, they faced vicious racism at every turn. But they persevered and in doing so they have left a proud legacy — the UK’s post-war institutions would not be what they are today if it weren’t for the contributions of these migrants and those that came after them.
But while Unite embraces celebrations of this legacy, the union believes Windrush Day must also be a day of action.
Just two years ago, it came to light that migrants who had arrived in the UK from the late 1940s to early 1970s were being wrongfully detained and some even deported under the ‘hostile environment’ immigration regime created by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.
Up until 1973, anyone moving from a Commonwealth country had a legal right to stay in the UK indefinitely. But because many arrived as children and travelled on their parents’ passports, tens of thousands of Caribbean migrants from that era had no documents proving their right to stay.
Landing card slips recording their arrival, which could be used as proof, were destroyed by the Home Office in 2009.When May introduced immigration checks which required employers, landlords and the NHS to demand proof of the right to live in the UK, thousands of legal Commonwealth migrants, many of whom had lived in the UK for decades, fell through the cracks.
They lost their jobs, their homes and their freedom, with many thrown into immigration detention centres. Others were deported to countries they barely knew and some even lost their lives – so far at least eleven people have died after being wrongfully deported.While the government acknowledged the lives they ruined in 2018, the Windrush Scandal is not over.
Detentions continue with many facing deportation, while the government’s compensation scheme set up in the fall-out from the scandal has only compensated 60 people a meagre total of £360,000.
Unite is now calling for a number of measures to ensure justice for the Windrush victims, including restoration of full rights to indefinite leave to remain for those Windrush and Commonwealth British residents and their children arriving in the UK during the late 1940s and early 1970s, as well as the restoration of rights to housing, healthcare, welfare, employment and other British and EU-derived rights.
The union is also calling for the immediate release of those detained and facing deportation and the return of those wrongly deported, who must be given rights to legal aid and compensation for loss endured and injury to feelings.
Moreover, Unite has called for an end to the government’s hostile environment immigration system and believes the onus of proof of right to live in the UK for those Windrush-era migrants must come from the Home Office and not fall on migrants themselves.
Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel said these calls were all the more important at a time when Black and Asian Ethnic Minorities (BAEM) communities are facing heightened risk of death amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Windrush Day has never been more important than now,” he said. “Our BAEM communities and migrant workers, many of whom work in the NHS and other frontline roles, are dying at shockingly higher numbers than other groups amid this pandemic.
“Despite the government waiving the £400 NHS visa surcharge for migrant workers in health and social care, it has now come to light that many are still being charged. To add insult to injury, for all their hard work amid this pandemic in their roles as essential workers, far too many are being described as ‘low-skilled’ workers – even by official departments such as the Office for National Statics (ONS).
“Racism and xenophobia in the UK is alive and well and they are being shamefully practiced by our government and our institutions. At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has gained massive momentum here in the UK, we must channel this energy into ensuring justice for the Windrush victims and continuing to pressure the government to make other changes, like ending the hostile environment regime, to give migrant and BAEM workers the respect they deserve.”
By Hajera Blagg