It seems the Windrush “scandal” has come and gone.
News that British residents, mostly of Caribbean descent, had been denied rights to citizenship, residency, healthcare and more, sparked outrage across the United Kingdom. And understandably so: these are violations of the terms under which these individuals—known collectively as the “Windrush generation”—migrated from Commonwealth territories to the U.K. after World War II on ships such as the Empire Windrush.
But it seems the public needed only one minister to fall on their sword to be satisfied. Home Secretary Amber Rudd lost her job after she “misled” the public on her knowledge of “hostile environment” policies. These were policies designed to make life in Britain so unbearable that asylum and residency applicants would voluntarily deport themselves. Sajid Javid, the son of immigrants from another Commonwealth nation, has replaced Rudd and commissioned a task-force to re-establish these citizens’ rights.
But to what extent have lessons truly been learned? May refuses to discuss repressive anti-immigration legislation, and her administration has presented the treatment of Windrush immigrants as a misfiring of an otherwise legitimate weapon against immigration. Holding just a few individuals accountable loses sight of the threats to health, life and livelihood that these British citizens have endured because of the system as a whole.
Using the language of “scandals” to talk about the deliberate targeting of immigrant communities belittles the suffering and injustice that these citizens have tolerated at the hands of their government. This misconduct has been framed as merely a faux pas, ranked alongside intra-Cabinet squabbles and other embarrassments for this government. Now, Windrush revelations have disappeared from the headlines, bracketed as another bad few days for May’s administration or analyzed for their implication for Brexit. This perspective masks the deep hold that disregard and disdain for immigrants continues to have on British politics.
Most crucially, the work and words of anti-deportation activists are lost in the noise. Reports that Windrush migrant known as Albert Thompson was denied cancer treatment sparked the current fire of outrage. But activists have exposed many other egregious cases of harassment and intimidation long before news broke about today’s “hostile environment.” For instance, the U.K. government has carried out mass deportations via charter flights since 2001, prioritizing full planes over careful consideration of asylum applications. Activists have been protesting such tactics for years.
Similarly, but unknown to the public, the last Labour government decided to destroy the Windrush landing cards (a crucial piece of evidence for residence applications) in 2009, a process May continued as Conservative Home Secretary in 2010. This continuity tells us that the British government, political parties aside, has shown consistent disregard for immigrants’ rights and safety. It may be easy to demonize Rudd, May or the Conservatives, but this rot is deeper than the “hostile environment” policies that make it explicit.
But how have politicians convinced us that each instance of institutional malpractice against immigrants is a just one-time thing? We can see a clue to this question in the way the media has focused on the Windrush generation’s “good record” of contributing to British society. The problem with lauding the contributions of one immigrant community, no matter how true, is that it sets up an oppositional “bad migrant” that does not benefit from sudden outrage. We call for the compensation of the Windrush generation at the expense of immigrants who have not lived up to this standard of service or have not been given the chance to do so.
And so, abuses of immigrant rights persist with little public attention: charter planes are still leaving U.K. airports filled with asylum applicants who have had little or no opportunity to seek legal recourse and whose nationalities leave them out of the Windrush media storm. U.K. policy-makers may bow to pressure on the Windrush issue, but when it comes to other groups of immigrants, deportation targets come first, human rights come second.
In an era of denials, alternative facts and gaslighting from our political leaders, it may feel like a welcome relief when politicians admit wrongdoing and policies change in response to flash-in-the-pan scandals. But when the outrage machine focuses on the one specific grievance too heavily, there is no real systematic shift.
Some may rush to strip race and ethnicity from the story, blaming unfeeling bureaucracy or a general hostility to all immigration. But stories from the Windrush generation show this to be a delusion: the Home Office’s deliberate hostility towards particular residents tells us that narratives about who belongs in Britain continue to cut along racial lines. The Windrush generation may be framed as valued citizens in this political row, but they will not have forgotten the racism they encountered upon arrival and continue to feel today.
It took months for news outlets, Members of Parliament and the public to notice the widespread, illegitimate targeting of the Windrush generation. But violations of asylum-seeker and other immigrant rights have been ongoing for years. We must learn to recognize the warning signs of repressive practices against immigrants and hold politicians accountable for their reluctance to address them. And we must start listening to black and immigrant voices. Only then will we be able stop cases like Windrush before they reach rock bottom.