THE past few years have been a “nightmare”, says Anthony Bryan. After his passport application was turned down, the Home Office claimed he was an illegal immigrant because he lacked the documents to prove otherwise. He lost his job and did two stints in prison-like migration detention centres. At one point the Home Office booked him on a flight back to Jamaica, the country he left as a child in 1965. Only an intervention by his lawyer averted his deportation.
Mr Bryan is a child of the “Windrush generation” of Caribbean migrants who came to Britain in 1948-71. Named after the HMT Empire Windrush, the boat that carried some of the first arrivals, their right to British citizenship was enshrined in law in 1971. That applied even to those without migration papers, like children who travelled on a parent’s passport. Many were therefore legally resident, without the paperwork to prove it.
For a long time, that didn’t matter. But in 2012 Theresa May, then the home secretary, introduced a number of policies to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants. Employers and landlords faced new duties to perform migration checks—and steep fines or jail time if they failed. The effect was to bring migration controls inland from the border.
But the policy also snared people like Mr Bryan, who were in Britain legally. No one, least of all the Home Office, seems to know the number of people affected, but experts reckon it may be tens of thousands. Many have lost their jobs, been detained in migration centres or denied medical treatment. Some may have been deported—the Home Office is not sure.
Proving their right to be in the country is fiendishly hard for some. Applicants must demonstrate that they have not left Britain for more than two consecutive years since their arrival, a tall order for those who came half a century ago as tots. In 2010 the Home Office destroyed an archive of old landing slips, the only evidence some had of their arrival. The problem has been compounded by cuts to legal aid, says Nick Nason, an immigration lawyer.
The government initially hid from its foul-up. Mrs May refused a request by the leaders of Caribbean countries to discuss the problem at this week’s Commonwealth summit. But public outrage prompted a U-turn: she apologised for the migrants’ treatment, as did her successor as home secretary, Amber Rudd, who faced calls from Labour to resign.
The episode is a cause of “national shame”, as David Lammy, a Labour MP and son of Windrush arrivals, told Parliament. And it has hardly reassured EU migrants living in Britain that they can believe the Home Office’s assurances regarding their status after Brexit. Satbir Singh of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants sums up the concern: “In 40 years we could see Italian grandmothers being removed because they did not fill in the right application form.” (The Economist)