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From British Citizens to Illegal Immigrants: The Absurd Case of the Windrush Scandal

While it is true that in recent times the world has witnessed an unprecedented level of interconnectedness among nation-states, to the extent that some scholars even argue about the relevance of today's national borders as barriers to the movement of goods, people, and ideas (Wilson & Donnan, 1998), the experiences of transnational immigrants from formerly colonized areas reveal a completely different picture. Borders have been turned into powerful tools of oppression and marginalization at the expense of a significant portion of the global population, becoming more rigid and impassable than ever before. To demonstrate this, the following article employs the story of the Windrush scandal to provide a poignant illustration of how national borders are never a neutral factor; rather, they serve as active reminders of the ongoing effects of colonialism particularly on Black and Brown bodies.


Named after the SS Empire Windrush, the ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948 (Stenhouse & Lynch, 2018), the Windrush generation stands today as the most blatant revelation of the UK's racist policies in dealing with the immigration status of hundreds of individuals who had come to Britain throughout the 1950s and '60s to aid in the post-World War II reconstruction efforts. Shockingly, it was brought to the public attention that the UK Home Office had failed to keep records of the Windrush immigrants who arrived at a time when they were granted permission to stay without the need for a document to confirm their legal status as British citizens (What is Windrush?, 2018). As a result of this act of negligence from the British government, those affected were left unable to prove their lawful presence in the country. This meant they were denied access to essential services such as healthcare, employment, and housing. In some extreme cases, this even led to their detention and deportation (What is Windrush?, 2018). In the years following the scandal, more evidence came up which made it clear that the immigration system's failings were not merely a glitch but rather a reflection of the government's hostile immigration policies that had made it challenging for Windrush immigrants to prove their rights to stay in the country for several decades.

Figure 1: Windrush protesters outside the Home Office in London (Rain/EPA, 2018).

Britain’s Colonial History in the Caribbean

To gain a deeper understanding of the scandal at hand, it is essential to delve into the historical relationship between the United Kingdom and the Caribbean. This intricate connection dates back to the 17th century when the British Empire, driven by its ruthless pursuit of wealth, established colonial dominion over the Caribbean, exploiting the region's rich resources, vast lands, and local population. Notably, islands such as Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Antigua became pivotal focal points for the British, who made the establishment of sugarcane plantations a top priority (Lambert, 2017). At the core of this brutal economic system was the coerced labor of enslaved Africans, who had been forcibly transported to these Caribbean Islands, to be then subjected to backbreaking, labor-intensive conditions with the purpose of profiting the British society.

Eventually, the impact of centuries of slavery and colonial practices translated to far-reaching and long-lasting consequences on the global political and economic landscape. As a matter of fact, despite the independence movements of the mid-20th century, the abolition of slavery, and the various acts of resistance and rebellion carried out by the colonies to challenge British imperial rule, Britain's Empire in the Caribbean never ceased to exert its influence. On the contrary, the wealth accumulated through the exploitation of enslaved labor became pivotal in shaping the economic destinies of nations in the following centuries, leading to the progressive division of the globe between "first world economies", such as Britain itself, and "third world economies", like the Caribbean region. Precisely this division contributed to solidifying the economic disparities and institutionalized discrimination that still persists today.

Figure 2: "Cutting the Sugar Cane, Antigua" (Clark, 1823).

The Windrush Generation

After World War II, the United Kingdom faced a severe labor shortage and sought to recruit workers from its former colonies, particularly in the Caribbean, to help rebuild the nation. As a result, these people were encouraged and, more importantly, sponsored to migrate to the UK. The first ship to arrive in Tilbury Docks in Essex, England, was the MV Empire Windrush on June 22, 1948, and came to symbolize the beginning of a wave of migration from various Commonwealth countries that lasted until the late 1970s. In this context, the British Nationality Act of 1948 marked a significant milestone in the UK's history as it extended equal rights to colonial-born individuals, allowing them to enjoy the same privileges as those born in Britain, regardless of their area of origin. In reality, however, the people of the Windrush experienced pervasive racist hostility from the moment of their arrival on British soil, facing low-paying jobs and social and systemic biases, thus learning a harsh lesson that they would never be truly regarded as equal citizens. In "Why Did We Come? Memory, Migration, and (De)Colonization in the Caribbean and Beyond", Nobrega (2020) explores the underlying factors behind the generational decision to migrate and writes:

We came because we were coming to the mother country. Years of colonization had indoctrinated us with a sense of belonging to England, loyalty to the Queen and country, a willingness to fight to defend this mother country and all the values of this mighty seat of empire. (p. 31)

In this poignant passage, the author highlights that centuries of colonization had indoctrinated those immigrants with a sense of loyalty to the Queen and a willingness to fight for this mighty seat of empire, that they felt as partly theirs too. Therefore, despite the challenges they faced, the Windrush generation decided to stay and enrich Britain's artistic landscape through their vibrant contributions to music, literature, art, and cuisine. During this time, Caribbean musical genres such as reggae, ska, and calypso found a new home in Britain, influencing the development of British music scenes and later evolving into genres like British reggae and two-tone. Notable artists and musicians from the Windrush generation, such as poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and musician Bob Marley, introduced new perspectives, lyrical styles, and rhythms that became integral parts of the British cultural fabric. Along with them, writers like Andrea Levy, Sam Selvon, and Caryl Phillips explored themes of migration, identity, and the immigrant experience, providing unique perspectives on the challenges faced by Caribbean immigrants in Britain.

Figure 3: Empire Windrush (Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images, n.d.).

The Scandal

Following the passage of the 1948 Immigration Act, which granted citizens of former British colonies the right to remain indefinitely in England, many of these former colonies began gaining independence. This transition was met with a series of legislative measures introduced between the 1960s and early 1970s aimed at limiting the rights of such individuals to live or work in the UK (Stenhouse & Lynch, 2018). On the contrary, however, those who had arrived in the UK from any Commonwealth country before 1973 were granted an automatic right to permanent residence (Stenhouse & Lynch, 2018). Once again, this right was automatic, and many individuals falling in this category were never asked to provide or show any documentary evidence to prove their right to stay. As a result, many continued to live and work in the UK, believing themselves to be equally treated as British subjects (Stenhouse & Lynch, 2018).

The situation escalated with the beginning of the "hostile environment", a policy carried out throughout 2012 by the government of Theresa May, and aimed at making the stay in the UK for individuals without leave to remain in the country as difficult as possible, so as to hope that these people would be forced to "voluntarily leave" (Broomfield, 2017; Hill, 2017). This approach included administrative and legislative measures that required various institutions, such as landlords, employers, the NHS, charities, and banks, to carry out ID checks and deny services to those unable to prove their legal residence in the UK (Dodwell, 2018; Gentleman, 2018; O'Carroll, 2018; Staton, 2018; Younge, 2018). On the other hand, non-compliance with these measures resulted in hefty fines for landlords, employers, and such. What is even more striking is that, on top of this, the Home Office thought well to substantially increase the fees for processing leave to remain, naturalization, and citizenship applications, capitalizing off of the vulnerable positions of hundreds of innocent immigrants (Greenwood, 2018; Grierson & Marsh, 2018). The "hostile environment" policy faced criticism for its impact on marginalized communities, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) initiated legal action to review its implementation. In November 2020, the EHRC found that the Home Office had breached the law by not considering the impact of its policies on black members of the Windrush generation (Gentleman, 2020). In this regard, The Guardian newspaper played a vital role in exposing these issues since a leaked government-commissioned report revealed that immigration and citizenship legislation from 1950 to 1981 had been designed, at least in part, to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin living and working in the UK (Gentleman, 2022).

Figure 4: The Irwin Clement Caribbean steel band in London (Heritage Images/Getty Images, 1963).

To conclude, the historical events that have taken place in the UK showcase the intricacies and controversies that revolve around immigration and citizenship, particularly against those belonging to non-white communities (Gentleman, 2022). A historian from the Home Office, who remains anonymous, highlights the interconnection between Britain's borders and its colonial history and states: "The politics of Britain’s borders, which have been administered for more than a century by the Home Office, are now inextricably connected with race and with Britain’s colonial history" (Gentleman, 2022, p. 11).

Final Thoughts

The article discussed the continued importance of national borders for many people, especially those from formerly colonized areas, by examining the Windrush scandal. The Windrush generation, named after the ship that brought the first Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948, is a poignant example of how national borders remain important and can be oppressive. The scandal, which came to light in 2018, revealed how the UK government mishandled the immigration status of these individuals. Due to the government's failure to keep records, these people were unjustly denied access to essential services, and some were even detained and deported. Despite having lived in the UK for decades, they were suddenly labeled as illegal immigrants. To better understand the context of the Windrush scandal, it was essential to delve into the historical relationship between the UK and the Caribbean, which had significant and lasting consequences. The passage of the 1948 Immigration Act granted them the right to remain indefinitely in the UK, as part of the Commonwealth, but later legislative measures and the "hostile environment" policy complicated their status. This policy made it difficult for individuals without leave to remain in the UK, further exacerbating the challenges faced by the Windrush generation. For this specific reason, the Windrush scandal is a powerful reminder of how immigration and citizenship policies can disproportionately affect non-white communities and how national borders continue to hold immense significance for a significant portion of the global population.

Bibliographical References

Broomfield, M. (2017). "How Theresa May's 'hostile environment' created an underworld". New Statesman. Dodwell, A. (2018). "Another blow for May's hostile environment for immigrants". Global Justice Now. Gentleman, A. (25 November 2020). "Home Office broke equalities law with hostile environment measures". The Guardian. Greenwood, G. (2018). "Home Office citizenship fees 'scandalous'". BBC News. Grierson, J., & Marsh, S. (2018). "Vital immigration papers lost by UK Home Office". The Guardian. Hill, A. (28 November 2017). "'Hostile environment': the hardline Home Office policy tearing families apart". The Guardian. Nobrega, B. M. (2020). Why did we come? In J. Webb, R. Westmaas, M. del Pilar Kaladeen, & W. Tantam (Eds.), Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond (pp. 31–36). University of London Press. O'Carroll, L. (2018). "EU parents warned children need papers to stay in UK after Brexit". The Guardian. Younge, G. (2018). "Hounding Commonwealth citizens is no accident. It's cruelty by design". The Guardian. Staton, B. (2018). "Banks run immigration checks in Home Office crackdown". Sky News.,Office's%20%22hostile%20environment%22%20policy.&text=Banks%20are%20to%20begin%20immigration,living%20in%20the%20UK%20unlawfully. Stenhouse, A. & Lynch, B. (2018). What is Windrush scandal as UK celebrates day for vital generation who rebuilt country. The Mirror. What is Windrush and who are the Windrush generation? (2018). BBC.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Eason, S. (2018). Windrush Scandal protest – from Parliament Square to the Home Office”. Flickr.

Figure 1: Rain, A. (2018). [A protest in solidarity with the Windrush generation outside the Home Office in London; Photo]. The Guardian.

Figure 2: Clark, W. (1823). Slaves cutting the sugar cane - Ten Views in the Island of Antigua [Painting]. Wikimedia.,_plate_IV_-_BL.jpg

Figure 3: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Image. (n.d.). [Empire Windrush; Photo]. The Guardian.

Figure 4: Heritage Images/Getty Images. (1963). [The Irwin Clement Caribbean steel band in London; Photograph]. The Guardian. limboimbo


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