'I'm struggling': Windrush victims say little has changed one year on

'I'm struggling': Windrush victims say little has changed one year on

This article is more than 4 months old

Many affected by scandal still face difficulties and charities believe hostile environment remains

Winston Robinson
Winston Robinson was sacked in 2016 because he had no passport. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

A year after the government promised to put right its ???appalling??? treatment of the Windrush generation and committed to reform the Home Office, many of those affected by the scandal remain in acute financial difficulties, and immigration charities say there has been no change in the department???s culture.

The government was shamed into action a year ago on the opening day of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London, when news that Downing Street had refused a meeting with Caribbean leaders to discuss the problem triggered international condemnation.

After ignoring the issue for months, Theresa May and the home secretary, Sajid Javid, began repeatedly apologising for the Home Office???s mistaken decision to classify thousands of long-term British residents as illegal immigrants, forcing many of them out of their jobs and homes, and in extreme cases, resulting in detention and deportation.

Sajid Javid
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Sajid Javid said he wanted to introduce a ???fairer, more compassionate??? immigration system. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Both Amber Rudd and Javid, her successor at the Home Office, acknowledged the department needed to change. Javid said something had gone massively wrong and that he wanted to introduce a ???fairer, more compassionate??? immigration system that allowed staff greater freedom to use common sense.

Over the past 12 months, there has been a concerted official effort to clear up Windrush-related problems. About 5,000 people have been granted paperwork confirming their right to live in the UK, of whom more than 3,600 have been given British citizenship.

The numbers of people being detained and deported by immigration officers have dropped by 41% and 18% respectively as a result of ???changes across the immigration system following Windrush???, the Home Office noted. A compensation scheme has been announced, which could pay out up to ??570m. A review into what went wrong has been commissioned and will be published later this year.

But charities helping those affected are concerned so many people continue to have to fight to get their situations resolved. Immigration lawyers say they have seen no evidence the Home Office has become more compassionate, or any sign of any improved sensitivity in its handling of cases.

None of the hostile environment legislation introduced by May when she was home secretary has been repealed. The small print of the compensation scheme has caused concern that the payouts might prove insufficient.

A year ago, most people affected were optimistic their situations would quickly improve; for many, that has not been the case. Some are still unable to open bank accounts and are struggling with everyday life.

Winston Robinson, a former ambulance driver, 59, who was sacked in 2016 because he had no passport, remains unemployed and heavily in debt. When he lost his job, he was told he was not eligible for benefit payments and was consequently unable to pay his rent, so he became homeless.

People protest against the treatment of the Windrush generation in London
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People protest against the treatment of the Windrush generation in London. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Images

He was granted citizenship last summer and would like to return to his old job, but the post is no longer available. ???The government forced the company to get rid of me; now they need to force the company to take me back. I was good at what I did ??? the patients always asked for me. I really want to get back to work,??? he said.

Robinson has been reimbursed ??4,000 of unemployment benefits for the period he was out of work, but his bank account remains frozen and he owes about ??12,500. He cried at a town hall meeting of Windrush scandal victims as he tried to explain the urgency of his situation. He has been given a form to fill in for compensation.

???I didn???t apply to get into this mess, but now I have to apply to get out of it. They shoved me into a dark tunnel for nearly three years. I thought things would be sorted by now. They need to address this situation in a more humane way. I???m bitterly struggling,??? Robinson said.

Edward Bromfield, 63, was evicted by Haringey council last year because he was unable to prove he was living in the country legally ??? despite having arrived as a child 47 years ago ??? and slept in a shed in a friend???s garden for six months until he was rehoused after the scandal. The flat was unfurnished, so he spent several months sleeping on the uncarpeted concrete floor until a charity gave him money to buy a bed.

He has applied to the government???s hardship fund for money to buy new gardening tools so he can get back to work ??? all his clothes and possessions were destroyed when he was evicted ??? but he has not received any money under the scheme. Only nine people have been given hardship fund payments. ???It???s been terrible. I am angry, but what can I do? I feel lucky that they didn???t throw me out of the country. Some people were destroyed completely by this,??? Bromfield said.

Meanwhile, Donald Thompson, 65, has been waiting for a response since submitting an application last May. He arrived in the UK aged 12 in 1967, and has lived most of his adult life in the country. He has made a number of efforts to regularise his status in the UK, without success. ???It never ends. It feels like things are no better than they were a year ago,??? he said.

Diane Abbott
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Diane Abbott: ???This government is still failing to fully address the Windrush scandal.??? Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Thompson lives in Diane Abbott???s constituency. The shadow home secretary said: ???The Windrush generation came here in good faith on documents which said they were British citizens. It is wrong that this government has gone back on their word and are asking for papers they do not have, and subjecting people to conditions that other British citizens are not. This government is still failing to fully address the Windrush scandal that has seen some of its citizens left destitute.???

Despite a commitment to transparency, the Home Office has not released details about some of the most egregious cases. The home secretary has written letters of apology to 18 of the 164 people who were wrongly detained or deported, accepting they were worst-treated by officials, but refuses to release any details of the nature of the mistreatment.

At least 19 of those wrongly detained or deported died before the Home Office was able to contact them, and another 27 have not been traced. People who lost their jobs, were denied healthcare or were made homeless have not received individual letters of apology.

There is widespread unease that despite repeated commitments to right the wrongs of Windrush, the government has not reviewed its hostile environment legislation, beyond rebranding it as ???compliant environment??? policies.

David Lammy
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David Lammy said the UK had ???an immigration policy based on deep hostility to immigrants???. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, who helped Bromfield with his housing difficulties, said: ???The scandal leaves a permanent stain on the experience of the Windrush generation and people of Caribbean descent that will never be erased and never forgotten; it is now an indelible part of that history.

???It was a profound, deep, wounding scandal for the country, Britain???s black community and for the government, and a year on it is clear that the government has certainly not come even to recognising the scale of that wound and seeking to heal it.

???The issue at the heart of it was a structural one ??? an immigration policy based on deep hostility to immigrants, a world in which you assume the worst of people who have any sense of being anything other than white, Anglo-Saxon English.???

Minnie Rahman, the campaigns and public affairs manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said she was concerned the broader changes promised by the government had not materialised.

???The hostile environment policies which entrapped the Windrush generation are still destroying lives every day: people who are legally here are still losing homes, access to healthcare, jobs and even being wrongly deported. The hostile environment must be scrapped, before it causes another Windrush level scandal,??? she said.

Who are the Windrush generation? ??? video explainer

Caseworkers at Praxis, the London charity that has supported more than 100 members of the Windrush generation in the past five years, said delays to the Windrush taskforce granting people documents were getting longer.

???Some cases are taking a very long time to resolve,??? a caseworker said. One client had had a stroke, possibly related to stress, while he was waiting for his case to be resolved. Beyond Windrush-type cases, staff had noticed nothing different in the way in which the Home Office was dealing with cases. ???There???s been absolutely no change,??? a caseworker said.

A Home Office spokesman said some cases were complex and took longer to resolve, adding: ???The home secretary and immigration minister have been resolute in their determination to right the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation.???