Leaked Windrush report highlights U.K.’s long history of anti-Black racism


Activists, organizations that support immigrants, and liberal and leftist politicians alike are all demanding the publication of the report—demands which, as of this writing, have been denied. 

BBC reporter Celestina Olulode writes:

Jacqueline McKenzie, an immigration lawyer at Leigh Day who supports Windrush victims, has called for the report to be released.

She said failure to do so was an insult to those affected – and that many victims had told her that they wanted to understand what happened as part of the healing process.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This report does not represent government policy and the views included in it are those of the author who is a historian independent from the Home Office.”

Member of Parliament (MP) Diane Abbot wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian that covers some of the racist and anti-immigrant history in Parliament—and calls out the complicity of both major political parties.

All parties, including my own, have been complicit in making bigoted laws. Acknowledging this is the first step to rectifying it

In 1949, the Royal Commission on Population reported that “immigrants of good stock would be welcomed without reserve”. “Good stock” in this context might be assumed to mean white. In 1956, a ministerial committee was set up to investigate colonial migration – and whether it should be curbed. It argued that: “The principle that the United Kingdom should maintain an open door for British subjects grew up tacitly at a time when the coloured races of the Commonwealth were at a more primitive stage of development than now. There was no danger then of a coloured invasion of this country … In the meantime circumstances have changed …” The report continues: “We clearly cannot undertake to absorb … all the coloured immigrants who may wish to come here.”

With their fear of a “coloured invasion”, these MPs were foreshadowing what Margaret Thatcher would say more than 20 years later, when she referred to Britain being “swamped” by migrants. Pertinently, that 1956 report also said: “There is no doubt that even though a bill would in form be non-discriminatory, it would nevertheless be clear against whom the bill was really directed.”

Abbot closes with:

The system is calibrated for racism. It always was. We know it, and now we know that, behind closed doors, Priti Patel’s Home Office knows it. The dirty secret is no longer secret.

The Guardian issued an editorial statement on May 30.

The appalling treatment of thousands of black British people from 2010 onwards is one of the most shameful episodes in our recent history. At least 164 people were detained or deported as a result of the “hostile environment” engineered by the Home Office. In the words of Wendy Williams’ review, published in 2020, they were made to “feel like criminals in a country where they’d lived lawfully for most of their lives”. Around 20 died before receiving compensation, many of them in the Caribbean.

Ms Williams found that “institutional ignorance” was to blame for a situation in which laws were changed in ways that penalised black people, without the Home Office understanding that this was what was going on. The report on the policy’s roots came in response to her call for improved training. It describes with admirable clarity the process whereby laws began to discriminate between white and black people. It explains how multiple acts of parliament from 1950 onwards were “designed to reduce the proportion of people living in the United Kingdom who did not have white skin”. This was, and is, a racist legacy of a racist empire. And it is not a secret.

Yet the government appears unwilling to confront it. Since Ms Williams’ report, there have been warm words but little evidence of a change of culture in Priti Patel’s department. In March, Ms Williams said that she was “disappointed with the lack of tangible progress”. Her proposal for a migrants’ commissioner was not taken up. Windrush victims are frustrated by compensation delays.

Amelia Gentleman, Guardian reporter and award-winning author of The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, also reacted to the news—and questioned the secrecy.

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As she wrote for The Guardian on May 29:

A freedom of information request about the document was refused. Acknowledging that the subject was “a matter of legitimate public interest” and that “openness and transparency” were important, the request was nevertheless rejected on the grounds that the Home Office’s response to the Windrush scandal included “sensitive issues involving the development of policies”. Publication of the document could “inhibit discussions and the ability of ministers to take free and frank advice”.

Immigration historians said it was peculiar to suppress a work of history that was funded by the taxpayer. There was speculation over whether the report was withheld internally for a year because its conclusions were at odds with the government’s narrative on race. Last year, Tony Sewell’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report on race said there was no evidence to suggest that Britain was an institutionally racist place. Last month, the prime minister told parliament: “For centuries, our United Kingdom has had a proud history of welcoming people from overseas.”

Simon Woolley, the former CEO of Operation Black Vote and chair of the No 10 race disparity unit July 2020, said the refusal to make the report public was “shameful”. “The government is hellbent in its denial of the systemic nature of racial inequality and in this climate historical facts have become uncomfortable truths that need to be hidden,” he said.

British racism—tied to its years as an imperialist empire and major colonial power—is evident to those who experience it every day. Windrush is but one example, but it is an important one for Caribbean people who are debating their current ties to the Crown.

The report does not cover more recent depredations against the Black Caribbean community in the U.K.—most notably, ongoing deportations.

As Jamaican politician Lisa Hanna wrote on May 20: 

I have recently been thinking about the way we treat people who have broken the law. There is a significant philosophical issue here regarding the kind of societies we, as members of a globalised world, want to live in: if you have lived in a place since infancy or childhood and you commit a crime in that place, should you be punished in that place? Or should you be deported back to the country of your birth?

These questions come to mind as I read about the UK’s deportation flights. According to analysis by a campaign group, published in the Guardian last week, of 20 Jamaicans facing one recent deportation flight, the majority arrived in Britain as children. (The flight left this week with seven people on board; others remained in the UK pending legal challenges.)

We need to have an open and honest debate about this. Is it humane to displace human beings from one country to another, where they may not have lived for decades and no longer have connections? Is it fair to the recipient country who would now have to bear the burden of trying to reintegrate that person into a society that is foreign to them? And is it fair to that person, who not only has to pay their debt to society through imprisonment but has the additional punishment of having to rebuild their life in a country thousands of miles from home?

Black community activists continue to protest the deportations.

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This mother of a man facing deportation defends migration as a concept and notes her family’s multigenerational roots in the U.K. Then she cries out against the “wickedness” of the deportations: “It’s racism, you’re selling these children like they’re animals, like goats.” 

For those readers new to Windrush and the struggles around it, I’ve written several stories about it here in the past:

‘If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas’: MP blasts Brit Home Secretary over ‘Windrush Generation’; 

Lenny Henry: ‘When it comes to fighting racism, institutional or otherwise, there is no finish line’;

and Racism in Great Britain: ‘Windrush generation’ got a day, but pain and suffering hasn’t gone away. 

If you are interested in an absorbing and in-depth read on Windrush, I suggest you read the aforementioned Amelia Gentleman’s book.

Margaret Doyle, writing for The UK Administrative Justice Institute (UKAJI), wrote this review in 2020.

Fundamentally the book is the story of an investigation carried out by a journalist who waded in to uncover deeply rooted wrongdoing even when she was not sure the wrongdoing was there to be found. The story unfolds like a thriller; it has villains and victims, but what Gentleman reveals at the source is a rotten core, not a bad apple, not even the Home Secretary who was forced to resign. Gentleman traces the roots of the ‘hostile environment’ policy campaign – an official term that was only discarded once the scandal was exposed and the government renamed the policy ‘the compliant environment’. Its roots go back further than the 2014 Immigration Act, back to the growth of immigration enforcement under New Labour, but the narrative adopted by Theresa May as Home Secretary, and the measures brought in with the hostile environment policy, were designed not to address illegal immigration but to pander to a newly emerging political force raising alarms about net migration overall. Those roots of the hostile environment are deeply implicated with the threats felt by the Conservative party with ‘UKIP breathing down their necks’.

‘We are here because you were there’

The book also tells the many stories of those affected by the Windrush scandal – men and women in their 50s and 60s who were born in the Commonwealth and who moved to the UK as children, as citizens moving from one part of the British empire to another to join parents who had been recruited to help rebuild Britain after the war. They went to school, worked, had families, paid taxes and National Insurance. Those who arrived before 1973 were eligible for citizenship but may not have been aware of the requirements. Like most people, they had no need to keep abreast of the many changes to immigration rules and visa requirements that have taken place in the past 30-40 years. They had lived here for many decades and felt British to their core.

What most had in common, a factor that meant they and not others in similar situations were hit hardest by the hostile environment, was that they not travelled outside the UK since arriving. They had had no need for a passport, no need to verify their status. The questions, triggered by the transfer of immigration enforcement responsibilities under the hostile environment policy, came from nowhere and everywhere – from employers, the JobCentre, the Council housing office, the hospital. In some cases, the application for a passport – to visit elderly relatives in Jamaica, for example – triggered a refusal and a frightening letter from the Home Office threatening deportation.

I hope you will give it a read.

Windrush Day is celebrated in the U.K. on June 22. I’m sure many of the events will also put more pressure on the powers that be.

I’m also hoping that the outcry around the news of the report will force the U.K. government to release the report they commissioned. We’ll keep you posted.

Join me in the comments for more on Windrush, and for the weekly Caribbean Twitter News Roundup.





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