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A story of undocumented Winrushians

‘Windrush Generation in trouble through no fault of their own’, I beg to differ!

Truth matters. Facts matter. Emotion running high gets attention, but truth and facts sustain real change.  Over the past few weeks I have resorted to shouting at my TV, vigorously overmarking newspaper reports, posting contrary sentiments on social media, and engaging anybody willing to listen. In my own way I have been feeling as outraged as David Lammy MP has looked and sounded in some of his speeches.  As any salmon will tell you, swimming upstream is tiresome business, much easier to swim downstream with the shoal. For us humans, it is much easier to get caught up in group-think and go with the flow of public opinion especially when fuelled by the power of apparently favourable all-party political populism. It is tempting, but I refuse to play the game.

Super-emotionally charged personal stories of the tragedies that have befallen some has become totemic and symbolic of a whole community now widely recognisable as ‘The Windrush Generation’.  Who exactly are these? How much trouble are they in?  These are two simple questions that can help us get an understanding of the presenting challenges.

Facts matter.  However, currently we do not know how many people make up ‘The Windrush Generation’, i.e. those from the Caribbean who up to 1973, and their descendants since, were entitled to British citizenship.  One BBC report locates the Windrush Generation within Commonwealth migrants of that era and estimates that 57,000 people ‘likely to be affected’ of which 15,000 are Jamaicans.  Of other Caribbean countries the figures are not to hand.  So, to suggest that 15,000 Jamaicans are ‘likely to be affected’ is to make a huge over-statement – contributing to the universalising, de-particularising of a problem beyond some known cases. The conflation of the known with the unknown and assumed extent of the citizenship challenges of some is exacerbated by the use of terms like generation to accompany the now familiar Windrush while highlighting the invaluable contribution made by them in various areas of British society such as transport, health, sports and faith.

I am a child of the Windrush Generation arriving in England to join my parents in September 1968, just one month before my sixteenth birthday after which I would not have been able to do so, according to the then prevailing immigration rule.  My parents had travelled to Britain before Jamaican independence in 1962, so were British.  I however travelled post-Independence on a Jamaican Passport.  My recollection is that during the 1970s and 1980s there was increased awareness and widespread encouragement to apply for British citizenship.  I, my family, and to my knowledge, all the people around me, mostly in the Church of God of Prophecy applied for and got British Passports. For a time, I was the volunteer Public Relations Officer tasked with awareness-raising.

What has also been described as a the Windrush Scandal describes how the British Home Office has threatened Commonwealth immigrants who arrived before 1973 and their children with possible deportation if they could not prove their right to remain in the UK.  So far, actual deportations have remained largely unproven, but refusal of re-entry into Britain, refusal of healthcare, blocking employment have occurred causing acute difficulties to those unable to provide appropriate documents to substantiate their British citizenship status.  A question may well be asked, if a majority of the Windrush Generation applied for and received their British citizenship, why did not some?  Various possible explanations have been suggested to me such as illiteracy, disinterest and unawareness.  I have little or no truck with those who assert that the current circumstance is ‘through no fault of their own’ with reference to those of my fellows who remained undocumented after all these years.  It cannot seriously be argued that anyone presenting themselves as ‘of the Windrush Generation’ should be taken on their word alone.  A simple reality is that wherever in the world one lives securing residency documentation is a basic civic responsibility, not of the government, but of the individual. Failure to do so exacerbates migration existence and potentially renders vulnerable self and descendants come the day of ‘hostile immigration environment’.  If you live in a racialised environment and your colour places you potentially on the ‘wrong’ side of the colour-line, even more reason to secure your base.

It is possible to be misled by current signals.  It is as though the whole country has come down with a bout of sympathy, pity towards the ‘Windrush Generation’ who are threatened by a wicked government wanting to deport them all after all they have done to build up the country.  The story has a feel of the Old Testament ‘Children of Israel’ in Egypt persecuted by the Pharaoh.  And there is no shortage of Moses rising up demanding ‘Let God’s people go’ – in reverse. Such outpouring of public pity may seem like a good thing, but it does not come without consequences.  Among such consequences is the infantilising of a people.  Projected as a victimised, vulnerable group in need of public protection because they are incapable of protecting themselves.  Assumed is a docility of a whole generation of people who hangs around for 40, 50 years unaware of their undocumented status; and now everybody is agreed, it is ‘through no fault of their own’ that this thing has befallen them.

And of course, infants always need protection, guardians. In the current case these include well-meaning do-gooding white folks appalled that their government could be so callous to their beloved Windrush Generation who are ‘part of us’ having come to work at the menial tasks the natives were unwilling to do back in the post-war period.  Had they advanced they would have sorted themselves out, so we have to protect them, speak truth to power for them.  Another kind of guardian are those with historic ties to the Windrush Generation but who have generally graduated away from the said Windrush Generation.  Appalled that those they ‘left behind’ have been summarily mistreated they tremble in indignation at this appalling travesty visited upon the Windrush Generation.  They must be fought for, defended, spoken up for until the Windrush Generation gets justice.

A third effect of infantilising is reputational damage.  The whole Windrush Generation is to be pitied and sympathised with, no exception.  A whole generation wronged, helpless to defend themselves, disgracefully denied their rightful legacy of British citizenship.  Even the idyllic coconut tree lined background of videos of those ‘marooned’ in Caribbean countries like my own Jamaica cannot disguise the hell they are having to endure.  Of course, being separated from family can never be adequately compensated for by Caribbean lands enveloped in wall to wall sunshine and heat and surrounded by sand and sea.  Caribbean countries will have a job to do when this debacle dies down to re-emerge as desirable places to be for holidays and residency.

It is difficult for some to believe that what has happened has not happened to all of the Windrush Generation, difficult to believe the current Conservative government has not done this deliberately since they are the party of Enoch Powell, and others like him from the right and far right of British politics.  We know that the idea of the ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants that some from the Windrush Generation have got caught up in started elsewhere, political party-wise.  It may therefore be advisable to view this as a British phenomenon than the exclusive prerogative of the current occupiers of ruling governmental seat.  Some find it difficult, or maybe inexcusable to understand that a hostile environment created for illegal immigrants can somehow envelope legally entitled British citizens, but if you are undocumented it is clearly possible.  It has actually happened.

The much talked about ‘hostile environment’ does exist, and in my view should be resisted because it is essentially anti ‘love thy neighbour’, ‘show kindness to the stranger’.  But it exists as an expression of what it takes to to satisfy the view in (mainly but not exclusively – just ask my recent non-white taxi driver) white Britain that there is too much immigration of the wrong sort, and government must bear down on it or pay a price at the polling booth.  I am not convinced that this was a policy made to expatriate the Windrush Generation – if so, it is a little late since the vast majority of The Windrush Generation became British citizens long ago. Undocumented members of the Windrush Generation along with undocumented others, from the Commonwealth in particular, have got caught up in a storm that was never intended for them.  As a Christian I believe in hospitality being shown to the stranger so I am instinctively against a ‘hostile environment’ being created for immigrants many of whom are in search of better.  Yet like many I suspect I am aware of some who came here on holiday and then refuse to return thereby becoming illegal.  Enough of this and the system is complicated and compromised and leads to government action some of which can lead to what has happened to some from the Windrush Generation.

Recently a Black-led Pentecostal Church requested that its regional and local pastors investigate and report back how many among its national membership and community could be identified as at risk because of their undocumented status.  Two cases were reported nationally.  A large congregation of mainly Jamaicans put out a similar call on a Sunday morning one Sunday.  Two people were identified as at risk.  Anecdotal, but these two examples hint at the nature of the problem: it exists but is not universal.  The overwhelming majority of the Windrush Generation have become British citizens and are untroubled by the current challenges, I am one of them as are my family and many known to me.  It is therefore inadvisable to universalise the nature of the British citizenship issue among the Windrush Generation.

In my experience the Windrush Generation are a people who take care of their business.  We know that Britain and Europe is a place where structural racism exists as a reality and that people of colour like the majority of us live with this hostility to varying degrees depending on the season.  We know that when this current hostile illegal immigration environment passes, it will be followed by another one and by other racialised challenges.  Indeed, we know instinctively that ours is an existence akin to the biblical Children of Israel in Babylon.  The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (29) encouraged the Israelites then to resist victimhood ideology, reject those whose soothsaying philosophy told them that freedom was around the corner, and that (only) then they could live in peace and prosperity. Instead, they should settle in for the long haul, create alternative cosmologies, rise above survivalism by taking their lives out of the hands and determination of others and take matters into their own hands. The prophet’s advice was to make Babylon ‘home’, settle in for the long haul, get involved with its life, pray for it, help build it by working, establish family life, prosper in and with it because its good and your good are intertwined.

One of the major realities that has come home to me in recent times is that structural racism is neither new or transient in Britain, it is transcendent.  Woe betides those who make it their life’s work to rid society of a feature that is endemic. Racism is demon in the land and we learn from Jesus’ ministry that you cannot negotiate with daemons, you can’t tame them, you can only cast them out.  But to do that, in the words of Jesus, ‘this kind goeth not out but by fasting and prayer’.  In other words demons understand and respond to one thing only – power.  It will not be killed but it can be exorcised by a stronger force.  For this reason, the way forward has to be predicated on empowering the potential victims of racism and other bad treatment.

The Jamaican National Hero Marcus Garvey championed the idea of ‘self-determination’ as a salutary basis for advancement.  Even in Babylon one has to practice self-determination.  When one sets a course of liberation and prosperity and determine that course with resolve, you then need to exercise and eat and live to be able to defeat the forces that come up against that determined course.  This is why I have little or no time for protesting on the streets, for signing petitions, and such like because one is in effect appealing to an immovable force called racism to be reasonable, a forlorn aspiration.  The Jeremiah way is to join in, work from the inside, build up resolve, pay attention to detail, take nothing for granted, ‘watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation’.

My conclusion is that although the current public narrative makes almost all windrushians feel vulnerable, the crisis does not affect the entire Windrush Generation and should not be generalised as such. A minority from that group have remained undocumented and after such a long time some have found it difficult and for some impossible to provide the evidence needed to establish their identity.  It is good that the British government has now agreed to support those needing assistance to secure the British citizenship that has always been rightfully their unclaimed heritage. But may be the main lesson from this unhappy saga is that every individual must see as their responsibility to sort their personal business, including citizenship status and know it is never a good practice to leave such matters in life’s pending tray believing that nothing will happen give you a rude awakening.  Sods law is that if it can it most probably will.  Everybody must take care of business or somebody’s business will one day come to haunt you.

Facts do matter, and we still do not really know how many of the Windrush Generation are in difficulties over their citizenship status. We know some are tragically caught in the slipstream of an unfortunate and unchristian policy of hostility towards so-called illegal immigrants. I pray hope and work that everyone needing help gets it.  But it doesn’t help to universalise a localised problem. Or to absolve grown adults of their responsibility.

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