A report by Amelia Gentleman for London’s Guardian.
British citizens threatened with deportation to countries they left as children and have not returned since
Downing Street has rejected a formal diplomatic request to discuss the immigration problems being experienced by some Windrush-generation British citizens at this week’s meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, rebuffing a request from representatives of 12 Caribbean countries for a meeting with the prime minister.
“We did make a request to the CHOGM summit team for a meeting to be held between the prime minister and the Commonwealth Caribbean heads of government who will be here for the CHOGM and regrettably they have advised us that that is not possible,” said Guy Hewitt, the Barbados high commissioner.
The refusal has given Caribbean diplomats the impression that the UK government is not taking a sufficiently serious approach to the problem that is affecting large numbers of long-term UK residents who came to Britain as children.
Some have been threatened with deportation to countries they left as children 50 years ago and have not returned to since. Others have been denied access to healthcare, lost jobs or been made homeless because they do not have sufficient paperwork to prove they have the right to be in the UK.
Hewitt said the numbers of people coming forward to say they were affected by the immigration anomaly were “increasing exponentially”. Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said dozens of people had contacted the charity seeking help after publicity around the issue last week.
Downing Street acknowledged that a request had been received from the Caribbean high commissioners and confirmed that a meeting had not been scheduled. Although the subject is not on the CHOGM agenda, officials said there would be “a number of opportunities” for the heads of delegations to meet the prime minister and discuss this “important issue”.
Seth George Ramocan, the Jamaican high commissioner, said he would be seeking to raise the issue despite the lack of a formal meeting. “We have senior citizens in limbo. It is not explicitly on the agenda, but we want our heads of government to bring it to the attention of the wider body,” he said.
Late on Friday, the Home Office issued a guidance summary of what Commonwealth-born, long-term UK residents should do if they were concerned that they did not have the necessary papers to prove their right to be in the UK.
The guidance acknowledges that problems are only now beginning to arise because of newly tightened immigration rules, and states: “Recent changes to the law mean that if you wish to work, rent property or have access to benefits and services in the UK then you will need documents to demonstrate your right to be in the UK. The government believes this is a proportionate measure to maintain effective immigration control.”
It adds: “We recognise that this is causing problems for some individuals who have lost documents over the long period of time they have been in the UK … No one with the right to be here will be required to leave.”
However, there was nothing new in the guidance, and charities working with people in this situation expressed frustration that the government continued to suggest that individuals seek legal advice. That is often prohibitively expensive for people who have been told they are not permitted to work and are not eligible for benefits.
There is a growing awareness of the problem, which may affect thousands of people who came from Commonwealth countries as children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, who have never formally naturalised.
Although anyone living here continuously since before 1 January 1973 is legally entitled to live in the UK, people who have not applied for passports (often because they have never had enough money to travel outside the UK) may struggle to prove that they are entitled to be here.
Some people moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born in became independent, and assumed that they were British. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University, estimates that about 50,000 Commonwealth-born persons in the UK, who arrived before 1971, may not yet have regularised their residency status and could be vulnerable to these difficulties.
Many people may not yet know that they could face problems, since the issue arises only when they apply for a pension, for example, or have some other new engagement with UK authorities, and papers are requested.
Kimberly McIntosh, of the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, said: “It is shameful and abhorrent that this is where we are, 70 years after Windrush. We need a resolution for all of the Windrush Commonwealth long-term residents.”
Singh has warned of the “significant discriminatory element” to the new immigration rules, which risk leading to decisions being made by NHS staff, employers and landlords based on racial profiling, influenced by skin colour and accents.
He called on the government to introduce a solution which was “free, fast and fair”, proposing a window to be introduced during which people could be helped to sort out the difficulty, with legal advice given, and Home Office fees waived.
A petition calling for an amnesty for anyone who arrived in the UK as a child between 1948 and 1971, and requesting that the government lowers the level of documentary proof required from people who have lived here since they were children, has been signed by 100,000 people in six days, triggering a possible debate in the Commons.
Writing for the Voice, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes acknowledged that the problem had arisen because of a tightening up of regulations. “The overwhelming majority of the Windrush generation already have the documents they need, but some – through no fault of their own – have not … Having not previously needed documentation they have now found themselves without any way of proving their status today.” She added: “We will handle every case with sensitivity and will help … people gather the information they need.”
Albert Thompson (not his real name), who has been waiting to have radiotherapy for prostate cancer since he was told last November he was not eligible for free NHS treatment unless he could prove he was legally in the UK, and informed that the treatment would cost £54,000, was sceptical about the promise of sensitivity. His case has still not been resolved.
Thompson said he hoped the government would act this week. “I’m very angry about this. I’m not a stowaway. I know I had the papers to come here legally. The government needs to have a deeper look at the problem and grant people leave to remain,” he said on Sunday.