Only a day after UK Prime Minister Theresa May met with Commonwealth leaders to declare the UK a global actor “open for business” in the post-Brexit era she found herself having to publicly apologise to the leaders of Caribbean States for the treatment of the “Windrush Generation” of postwar migrants.
The Windrush was the name of a boat that transported more than half a million Caribbean migrants to the UK in the 1950s to rebuild postwar Britain’s devastated infrastructure.
While serving as Home Office Secretary in 2010, the landing cards of this Windrush generation were destroyed and left them without proof of their right to remain in the UK. Many were stripped of their citizenship, even if they had arrived in the United Kingdom as children and never knew any other home.
May was at the time under pressure to deliver on lower immigration numbers by keeping the number of student visas that were issued in check. The UK had, by that time, been marred by several cases of students being deported before they could complete their studies.
May defended her position from her own Conservative party by going so far as to frequently reference the international definition of migration that includes students.
Scrapping student visas was a part of the 2010 Conservative manifesto to reducing immigration to below 100,000 a year. Since May has been unapologetic about her policy; the last time the former Home Secretary defended her stance on student visas was January 2018, despite evidence presented by the Office of National Statistics in 2017 that of the 100,000 foreign students coming to the UK, each year, only 5,000 overstay their visa.
In the Windrush generation controversy, the government has explained that the move was a technical “mistake,” as the cards were destroyed during a move of the UK’s Border Agency. Most British media, however, reported that the initiative was known by the government for years, with several cases of people raised in the UK being deprived of their benefits, access to healthcare, and stripped of their passports.
May has apologised to Caribbean counterparts, saying she is “genuinely sorry” about the anxiety caused to their citizens and insisted that she is not driven by a blind anti-immigrant fervour.
The student Visa issue remains a sore point that has been brushed aside by those close to May, who demands party loyalty to keep her backbenchers in check particularly as she now lacks the numbers in parliament to silence critics, including the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Ruth Davidson.
Broader credibility issues
The Windrush scandal has wider implications for May’s political credibility. On the one hand, she appears open to a Commonwealth fraternity, but also seems to evoke many of the darker imperialist stereotypes that have dogged British Tories for generations. Questions remain whether a similar approach to the Carribean migrants would have been taken had they been white. Moreover, this is a case linked to her very own political track record.
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, told The Telegraph on April 17 that the row over the Windrush generation calls into question guarantees for the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK.
“This poisoned immigration debate built entirely on a false premise must stop. The nervousness amongst Brits who came as immigrants and their offspring is considerable and justifiably so,” said Vehofstadt.