Can EU migrants trust Britain after the Commonwealth “Windrush” scandal?

The arrivals.
The arrivals.
Image: AP Photo/Staff/Worth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This post has been updated.

In Britain, there’s a huge row over the treatment and potential deportation of children from first generation Commonwealth migrants and how the UK government is handling the scandal. But the fallout extends way beyond issues for the citizens from former British colonies—it has got European Union officials concerned for the future of migrants from the bloc.

After the Second World War, the government called on Commonwealth citizens to fill labor shortages and help rebuild the country. Tens of thousands answered the call and arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971. Many of those who arrived from Caribbean countries have been called the “Windrush generation”—a reference to the historic ship MV Empire Windrush, which brought workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in the Caribbean in 1948. As they travelled from colonies that had not yet achieved independence, the British government of the time counted them as British citizens.

According to UK immigration law, people born in Commonwealth countries who arrived in the UK before 1973, and have lived in the country ever since, can live in the UK indefinitely. The British government didn’t, however, keep a record of those granted the right to indefinitely remain in the UK, or issue any paperwork confirming it.

To make matters worse, reports surfaced that the UK government destroyed landing cards, which would’ve been filled out by Windrush migrants on their arrival into Britain, in 2010. However, UK prime minister Theresa May said that while the Home Office did dispose of the landing cards as part of an office move, which complies with data protection laws, it was actually the Labour government that took that decision. When the Labour Party challenged May on this claim, her official spokesperson backpedaled and then stated it was an operational decision taken while her party was in government. Labour politicians are now accusing May of misleading parliament.

Windrush migrants say the landing cards would’ve helped to prove their arrival dates but the Home Office said the cards were not considered as definitive evidence of continuous residence in the UK. It advised that employment and school records were a more reliable method.

A number of Windrush arrivals are already reporting “harrowing experiences” of trying to prove their status despite living in the UK legally for half a century, according to The Guardian. Children of the Windrush generation who are now pensioners have been put in detention centers, lost their jobsmade homeless, told they are not entitled to welfare, and have even been denied access to cancer care with the National Health Service.

More than 160,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to grant an amnesty to the Windrush generation. May had initially refused to intervene and discuss the issue, but was forced to U-turn on the matter due to increased pressure from people across the political spectrum. May apologized to Caribbean heads of governments this week and promised that no one from the Windrush generation would be deported.

According to estimates, there are 524,000 Commonwealth-born people living in the UK who arrived before 1971. Around 57,000 of them say they as not UK citizens. There’s no accurate estimate of how many people are struggling to prove their right to be in the UK.

The government is unaware of any cases of someone from the Windrush generation who has been deported. But campaigners fear some have been deported in error. The government is now going through files to establish whether there had been any wrongful deportations.

A shadow over Brexit

The fallout over the Windrush migrant scandal has worried EU officials. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiation chief, told the European Parliament that the three million EU citizens in the UK must not face a “bureaucratic nightmare” to stay after Brexit. “After the Windrush scandal, we want to be sure that the same is not happening to our European citizens,” he said.

All EU nationals who arrive before the UK officially leaves the EU—29 March, 2019—or during a transition period, will have the right to remain in the UK, as will their family members. EU citizens wishing to continue to reside in the UK after Brexit will have to register for “settled status.” Verhofstadt adds that the Home Office, the government department responsible for migration, has agreed to go to the European Parliament and explain their proposed registration system for EU nationals. Meanwhile, the UK government has previously admitted it is struggling to recruit staff to register EU nationals.

The foreign minister of the dual-island nation St. Kitts and Nevis, Mark Brantley, echoed Verhofstadt’s point. He told the BBC: “The way the British government deals with the Windrush generation might have implications post-Brexit. In terms of how Europeans living in England are to be treated and vice-versa, how people from England living in Europe are to be treated as well.” Roberto Gualtieri, the socialist group’s member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering committee, told The Guardian: “We cannot allow this to happen to EU citizens. We will fight to ensure that Brexit agreement on citizens rights is watertight, with clear oversight from an independent body.”

While the government is keen to paint the Windrush scandal as a bureaucratic error, critics suggest it is the logical consequence of May’s strategy to reduce immigration. In 2013, May, then the home secretary, announced plans to create a “hostile environment” for so-called illegal migrants in Britain. She passed a law that required immigration checks to be carried out before anyone can open a new bank account, rent a house, be issued a driving license, or access the NHS. The bill forced landlords and employers to become immigration enforcers or risk being heavily fined. The government denies that the hostile environment strategy triggered the Windrush scandal.

May has long campaigned to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, but she has failed to meet this target. (Recent net migration figures show that 244,000 more people are coming to the UK than leaving).

There have already been a number of cases of EU citizens being denied residency in the UK. A Dutch woman who had lived in the UK for 24 years and has two British children was told to leave in 2016, while a German scientist who lived in the UK since 1999 was also told to leave. These orders were eventually overturned.