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What is the 'Windrush generation' and why did it lead to a major apology and a resignation?

Their plight has been in the news this week.

UK Immigration - West Indies - Empire Windrush, Tilbury Docks Jamaican immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush landed them at Tilbury. Source: PA

This piece was originally published on 18 April but is republished here following the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd over the scandal. 

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the UK government was forced into a climbdown and apology over threats to deport Caribbean-born citizens who were granted the right to live and work in Britain after the Second World War.

But, who are these people and what is happening to them?

Who are they?

In 1948, the ship Empire Windrush brought the first group of migrants from the West Indies and many others followed from around the Commonwealth.

The so-called Windrush generation began arriving in the UK from Commonwealth countries in 1948 to help rebuild the country after the Second World War, and were given indefinite leave to remain. Having lost hundreds of thousands of people, particularly working-aged men, during the war, the country needed labour and the Commonwealth provided the answer.

Because many were born in countries that were still colonies, they were legally British and granted leave to stay indefinitely.

Having lived in the UK in some cases for 70 years, this generation of immigrants has put down roots and has children and grandchildren in the country.

Around 50,000 Windrush generation residents could be affected by any clampdown because of their status. Most of them are from Jamaica and India, but there are no concrete statistics. Many people travelled on their parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents.

What changed?

EMPIRE WINDRUSH : 1954 The Empire Windrush Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The major change to the Windrush generation’s status actually came in 1971 when the UK passed the Immigration Act. The law gave them a legal right to remain, but many never formalised their status, often because they were children who came over on their parents’ or siblings’ passports and then never applied for their own.

Those who failed to do so were wrongly treated as an illegal or undocumented immigrant. This led to many not opening bank accounts, acquiring passports or having any documentary proof of their existence in the UK.

While most lived without incident for decades, recent focus on immigration changed that. In recent years, since a 2012 law change, a government clampdown on illegal immigration has begun to identify those without papers – scooping up many elderly people from the Windrush generation.

Why does it matter?

London 2012 - Eröffnungsfeier The Windrush recreated during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Source: DPA/PA Images

Some of the Windrush generation are now facing problems due to their legal status, with the Guardian newspaper highlighting numerous cases where those who lack the proper documents were told they need evidence to continue working, get NHS treatment or even remain in the UK.

One man, Bryan, told AFP that he was detained twice, first for three weeks, after which he was told to report every fortnight to the authorities.

“That was the worst, going to sign on and not knowing if you’re going to come out,” he said.

In November last year, he was detained again and booked on a plane to Jamaica two days later.

An immigration lawyer obtained a last-minute injunction and he was released. When he received confirmation of his status in February, “it was great, but I still didn’t feel great because my debts was rolling on me, my missus was stressed,” he said.

Once Bryan finally gets his British passport, he is looking forward to travelling to Jamaica where his mother now lives.

He said he would apply for government compensation for legal costs which have left him in debt, and the couple may also sue for wrongful detention.

Labour MP David Lammy, whose parents come from Guyana, called the policies “inhumane and cruel”.

What is happening now?

The issue has caused considerable embarrassment for Theresa May’s government, not least because Commonwealth leaders are in London this week. May was further embarrassed when it was yesterday revealed that the Home Office – the department she led for six years – admitted it had destroyed some of the Windrush generation’s registration slips, which detail when they arrived in Britain.

At a meeting in Downing Street on 17 April, May told representatives of the 12 Caribbean members of the Commonwealth that she took the treatment of the Windrush generation “very seriously”.

“I want to apologise to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused.

“I want to dispel any impression that my government is in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean.”

At the time, Amber Rudd said that “there is absolutely no question about the right to remain”.

“I am very sorry for any confusion or anxiety felt,” she said.

Campaigners want an amnesty for those affected, however some have bristled at that term, saying it implies wrongdoing.


Rudd telephoned May last night to formally resign. The Prime Minister accepted the decision.

It had emerged in the past 48 hours that she may have misled a committee of MPs over whether her department had targets for removing a certain amount of illegal immigrants from the country over a given period of time.

The Guardian published a memo from Rudd to May which outlined how she had an “aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”. She had told the home affairs select committee that her department did not work off targets.

With reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll 

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