Kehinde Andrews is an associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University.
In June 1948, the passenger ship Empire Windrush carrying almost 500 Caribbean immigrants arrived in Britain. The landing marked the first phase of a mass migration from Britain’s colonies, which was part of the nation’s efforts to solve its postwar labor shortage. The 1948 British Nationality Act offered “citizenship of the United Kingdom and the colonies,” paving the way for the Windrush. Anyone who migrated before 1973 and lived permanently in Britain should have the automatic legal right to remain.
In an irony lost only on the government, in the year we are meant to be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Windrush, many who migrated as children as part of that generation and have been in the country for decades are subject to deportation. It came to light this week that in 2010, the Home Office destroyed thousands of original landing slips that noted the arrival dates of Windrush immigrants. Because of renewed immigration checks that are now the legal duty of employers and landlords, there have been cases where people have lost their jobs, been held in detention centers and face deportation. Although members of the Windrush generation have the legal right to be in the country, the problem is that because they migrated as children, they often have no documents to prove it. The home secretary admitted that she does not know the numbers of people who have been impacted.
But protests against the deportation of long-standing residents misjudge the relationship between Britain and its colonies. Immigrants from the colonies were never welcomed as citizens, only as subjects of the British Empire. Their status was always contingent; Britain’s immigration policy since the 1960s has aimed to reduce black and brown immigration. The latest deportations are not an aberration, but the established norm. Inviting colonial migrants was never meant to be a recognition of their fundamental role in Britain. It was only a temporary measure to supply labor in the nation’s hour of need.
Indeed, British backlash to the immigration of the darker peoples of the world was swift. Fifty years ago, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. In it he warned that continued immigration from the colonies would lead to race war and that the nation must be “literally mad” to allow mass immigration, arguing it was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” Just 14 years after immigrants were welcomed, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted immigration from the colonies. Further legislation in 1968, 1971 and 1983 ensured that automatic citizenship was no longer granted.
Labour MP David Lammy has been the most passionate campaigner on the issue claiming his parents came “as citizens” and deserve full protection under the law. But claims that British citizenship would provide some kind of defense for the black population of Britain is to badly misread our status. Having a passport may protect you from deportation, but if you are black and in Britain you remain subject to racial discrimination in housing, health care, criminal injustice, employment and all other areas of social life.
The problem for many who are facing legal problems is that they do not have the documentation to prove their status. Under Prime Minister Theresa May’s drive to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, there are now numerous checks on legal status for work and housing. This has led to some who cannot prove their status being declared illegal immigrants and subject to deportation. The uproar from politicians and the public has been swift, with a petition to provide amnesty reaching more than 164,000 signatures. Public pressure has led to the prime minister apologizing for the position that migrants who came into the country legally are finding themselves in.
Today, 13 percent of the population is now from an ethnic minority, and Britain is keen to market its multicultural credentials and address its past. Prime-time television has shown documentaries on the legacy of slavery in Britain, as well as a whole series of programs on being black and British. Even the royal family is about to welcome a black princess. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of course, children of the Windrush generation should be granted amnesty, and it is possible that with enough political pressure they could be. But to expect that their ties to Britishness give them an automatic right to remain in the nation is to believe the lie that those who came from the colonies or their descendants have ever been fully accepted by Britain. We should organize and mobilize but never be surprised when British racism shows its hideous face.