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Editorial: On Windrush Day, let's vow to end the hostile environment for good

WINDRUSH review author Wendy Williams’s warning that similar appalling episodes could happen again shows that we cannot allow the government to put this crime behind it.

The appalling abuse of long-term British residents who were detained, unlawfully deported or denied medical treatment was a predictable and predicted consequence of government policy.

Apologies from the Theresa May government and its successor cannot hide the fact that they were repeatedly warned about the impact on hundreds of individuals of the “hostile environment” that May boasted of creating when home secretary in 2012.

The Home Office ignored reports from 2013 that its contractor Capita was sending out hundreds of threatening letters telling people — wrongly — that they had no right to be in the UK and in some cases instructing them to leave at once.

Capita has something of a reputation for bullying. Reports that it was deliberately targeting vulnerable people (including those with terminal illnesses and dementia) when contracted to collect TV licence fees prompted an investigation by the BBC, though the broadcaster happily turned to the firm again last year when seeking “outreach” agents tasked with collecting these fees from over-75s when the government subsidy ends. Capita also made hundreds of millions from the cruel “fit for work” tests imposed on disabled people by the David Cameron government.

It also, like most of the big private-sector firms favoured in government outsourcing agreements, has a reputation for incompetence, particularly over its role in NHS primary-care services. But whether the letters were sent through malice or incompetence is hardly the point: ministers did not care, because the hostile environment depended on creating a climate of fear and confusion.

That same indifference explains why the government passed the Immigration Act in 2014. It was explicitly warned by Diane Abbott in parliamentary debate that the Act would result in the persecution of British citizens. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell spelt out its consequences too, the former denouncing the Tory “mantra” that “every immigrant is an illegal immigrant who must somehow be condemned,” while the latter predicted a “regime of harassment for migrants.” They were among a grand total of six Labour MPs to vote against the Act, showing that that party too must address its long association with racist immigration policy.

That regime of harassment proved all the more vindictive in that the government had previously shredded thousands of landing cards that constituted proof of lawful entry to the country. In the end, at least 83 people were wrongly deported to countries that had never been their homes; some died before the government admitted its fault. 

Hundreds were wrongfully detained. The hostile environment’s requirement that employers and landlords start demanding new proofs of immigration status resulted in many losing jobs or homes, or both. Lives were ruined.

In the wake of such suffering, reports that the compensation scheme for victimised members of the Windrush generation is not paying out where it should are of serious concern. But an even greater problem is that the hostile environment still exists.

Indeed, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s attempts to crack down on immigration increase the scope for the harassment and exploitation of immigrant communities, while her opportunistic use of a horrific killing spree in Reading to push an accelerated deportation process will “disproportionately affect black people whose home is in the UK and who the government sees as easy targets,” as Bail for Immigration Detainees director Celia Clarke warns.

Like the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, the Windrush anniversary should be a moment of reckoning with our history: a time to salute and tell the stories of the people who travelled thousands of miles, at our government’s explicit request, to help “build back better” after World War II.

And in a year of anti-racist protests worldwide, it should energise the fight to overturn racist immigration laws and end the hostile environment, that recipe for institutionalised cruelty, for good.

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