Post-Windrush fears remain

The government may claim to be addressing the Windrush scandal but, more than a year since it was exposed, experts fear many people could still be under threat of deportation unless they come forward

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Owen Haisley is recounting one of the hardest phone calls of his life.

“I had to phone my boys from a detention centre and tell them Daddy was being sent to Jamaica and might not see them for a while,” he recalls.

“They’re only five and seven years old and it nearly broke their hearts. Now, whenever I miss a call from them, they’re scared that I’ve been deported. Little kids should be having fun, not worrying about things like that.”

A Manchester MC who migrated from Jamaica with his mother – a nurse -– at the age of four and was granted indefinite leave to remain aged 11, Haisley came close to being deported in February. After being detained and transferred to an immigration centre he was warned he would be expelled within days.

His removal was only cancelled thanks to pressure from his supporters – 100,000 people signed a petition on his behalf and MP Lucy Powell raised his case in parliament. The charter flight took off without him, carrying about 30 passengers who had not been so lucky, and he was set free.

This was the second time in just six months that Haisley, 45, had narrowly avoided deportation under the government’s hostile environment policy, which had automatically stripped him of his residency rights following a jail sentence for domestic assault. Introduced by Theresa May in her previous role as home secretary, the policy aims to make life in the UK as difficult as possible for foreigners.

Employers, schools, landlords, health services and other agencies are all now required to check people’s immigration status. Although the government says the rules target irregular migrants, they have also affected people who are legally resident and who have lived here for decades.

People from Commonwalth nations – including many who arrived as children – have been caught out if they lack the documentation to prove their status. In some cases, key evidence had been destroyed by government departments.

Some victims lost jobs and housing, while others were detained or even deported back to countries they had not visited in years.

In one case, London cancer patient Albert Thompson was asked to pay £54,000 for radiotherapy treatment. He had arrived in the UK as a teenager in 1973 but was unable to provide sufficient documentary evidence to prove it.

Thanks to the publicity surrounding his case, Haisley is no longer at imminent risk of deportation. But until his situation is resolved and his visa reinstated he must live in limbo, with no right to work, use the NHS or access benefits or housing. His case to remain in the UK is making its way through the courts, with a judicial review application due to be heard in June.

He says: “I know I did wrong but I’ve served my time and am not a re-offender. If I had a British passport I’d be moving on with my life by now. I’ve been here for 41 years. Like any parent, I want to work, get a house and do normal things for my children. But I can’t move forward with my life and am dependent on family and friends.”

Cases that have hit the headlines have largely involved migrants from Caribbean countries, who came to the UK to work from 1948 onwards, beginning with passengers of the SS Empire Windrush. But Windrush-era immigrants from any Commonwealth country can be affected by the hostile environment and campaigners believe many people have yet to come forward for help.

The Home Office admits that of the 164 people who were wrongly detained or deported at least 19 died before officials were able to contact them to apologise, while another 27 have not been traced. The total number affected by the scandal remains unknown.

In response, the Home Office has set up a Windrush taskforce, to assess the claims of those who say they have been affected. Application fees – normally in the region of £1,500 – are being temporarily waived and those eligible to apply include people of any nationality who settled in the UK before 1989.

More than 5,000 people have been granted documentation by the Windrush taskforce in the past year, confirming that they have a legal right to live in the UK. Of those, almost 3,700 have been granted British citizenship.

This month the government also agreed to pay up to £200 million in compensation to people wrongly classified as being here illegally who suffered as a result.

Announcing the scheme, home secretary Sajid Javid said: “Nothing we say or do will ever wipe away the hurt, the trauma, the loss that should never have been suffered by the men and women of the Windrush generation, but together we can begin to right the wrongs of Windrush.”

When the scandal broke, the fact that few people were coming forward in Kirklees to say they had been affected rang bells for some figures in the community. Activists and lawyers feared some local people – particularly older members of the population – could be burying their heads in the sand and hoping the issue would go away.

Last year Kirklees councillor Amanda Pinnock – whose own family is part of the West Indian diaspora – joined forces with local organiser Hugh Goulbourne and other volunteers to create Huddersfield Windrush Advocacy Group, which aims to encourage more people to regularise their status. They are receiving non-financial support from Kirklees Council and are signposting people to a local immigration law firm, My UK Visas, for advice. In six months they have dealt with only around 15 enquiries but believe this could increase as the hostile environment policy continues to bite.

They say applicants to the government’s Windrush scheme must produce lots of evidence to support their claim and the forms are long and complex, so help from a specialist immigration lawyer can improve people’s chance of success.

Pinnock says: “We still don’t know how many people could be affected by this in our area but we believe there are probably a number of people who are just hoping to keep their heads down and avoid coming forward. People are reluctant to come forward because they are fearful of any trigger that might prompt an investigation.

“I know about six people in that situation. That may seem okay if a person has steady employment and keeps out of trouble but if their situation changes – if they need to claim benefits, for example, or get arrested – they could face some serious problems.

“There are people questioning whether it’s worth trying to regularise their status. We are encouraging everyone to come forward now and take up this opportunity to sort out their situation – but it’s tricky because what if it goes badly for them?”

One case Pinnock has come across involves a man who has served several prison terms, and who – like Haisley – has lost his status as a result. He was recently released on bail, with no recourse to public funding, no right to work and no housing. She would like to see Kirklees Council commit to helping people in this kind of situation, and plans to put forward a motion asking that the authority make this policy.

“I’m working with the cabinet members to make sure this man gets housing,” she says. “I want to make sure the council has to help other people in future. That’s how I see my role as councillor.”

Huddersfield-based immigration solicitor Arta Heath, of My UK Visas, is not surprised by the Windrush debacle. She has been working on cases involving the status of Commonwealth migrants for almost 15 years and has seen the issues ramp up since new immigration rules were introduced in 2012 as a result of the hostile environment.

She says: “There has been a duty for employers to check the status of their workers since 2004, and this is how I became aware of this issue. I was working at Dewsbury Law Centre then and people generally came to me if they lost their job and had applied for a new one. At the time we talked to our MP, Barry Sheerman, and asked him to raise this issue in Parliament because we could see it could become a real problem in the future. Then when the hostile environment started to come into play, things became much worse.”

Like Pinnock, Heath believes the message has yet to filter through to affected communities. Her largest number of Windrush-era cases have come from Kirklees but even there only a handful of people have come forward.

Philip Stephen, now 60, arrived in Britain from St Lucia in 1967, aged nine, to join his parents in Huddersfield, where he has lived ever since. He travelled on a Commonwealth passport stating he had the right to live and work in the UK. But when his country became independent in 1979 those rights were lost.

When he was later made redundant, Stephen’s lack of paperwork made it difficult to find a new job. That led to his house being repossessed and his marriage breaking down.

Between 2013 and 2018 he was rejected five times, before finally receiving both British citizenship and a passport under the Windrush scheme, thanks to assistance from Heath.

He says: “This has gone on for years – it’s left me angry, bereft and dejected. It’s not nice being called a foreigner when you’ve lived somewhere for the best part of 50 years. My solicitor advised me that if I didn’t make a point of getting that piece of paper I’d be in danger of being deported. That had never entered my head. I’d advise people who don’t have the documentation not to be scared – go and seek help.”

Heath says she has met officers at the local authority and hopes some frontline services such as housing associations will start to assist in getting the message out to service users who may be affected.

She says: “I believe older people in particular are not getting the message that this is really important. I tell all my clients they must tell their grandparents and other people they knew to do this. They really need to make it a priority to apply for citizenship even if they don’t intend to go out of this country.

“I hear people say: ‘But I’ve lived here all my life and don’t need documentation.’ But the rules have tightened up and now people are having problems due to the hostile environment. Hospitals are now often asking people for ID and if people can’t show they are a British citizen they may not be able to acces the treatment they need. So it’s really important that people get their documentation in order.

“We also need to stress that this doesn’t only affect people from Caribbean nations, as the term ‘Windrush scandal’ may lead people to think. I’ve seen similar cases involving people from Ghana and India, for example. We could also see similar issues arising out of the EU settled status scheme in future.”

Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton and the shadow immigration minister, echoes her warning.

“The Windrush scandal laid bare the devastating impact of the hostile environment. The Tories ignored warnings that their draconian immigration policies would cause discrimination. Windrush proved those warnings right,” he says.

“Since the scandal broke last April, the government’s response has fallen short. It took a year for them to introduce the hardship fund Labour has been calling for since the beginning. They have left out many non-Caribbean people who were also affected by Windrush, and they re-started deportation flights before the lessons learned review has even reported.

“We must end the hostile environment to ensure that EU citizens do not become the next Windrush, and bring full and speedy compensation to all victims.”

Photo: Owen Haisley twice narrowly escaped deportation (Ciara Leeming)

‘They told me I could bring my children up over Skype’

The first time he was nearly deported, Owen Haisley came almost within spitting distance of the plane.

Held in the back of a van, he was minutes away from being put on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Jamaica when his lawyer’s last-ditch application to the Windrush scheme led to his removal being postponed.

Haisley’s ordeal had begun when he was released from HMP Risley in 2017 on immigration bail, which required him to report to a Home Office centre every week. After a year he was detained and almost removed, before being eventually freed. This time he was expected to sign in twice a week.

Haisley’s Windrush application was rejected in October and despite his lawyer putting in additional evidence, he was detained again earlier this year.

He says: “They told me my children would be okay without me, that I could bring them up over Skype. How could they say that?”

The paperwork handed to Haisley explained he could be deported within days – and that only an injunction or judicial review could prevent this happening.

Known as the removal notice window, this approach to deportation has now been halted by an injunction by the charity Medical Justice, pending a judicial review.

This time, Haisley told his friends what was happening to him – and they quickly built a campaign that gained massive support.

He says: “I was embarrassed to tell people that I had served a prison sentence and the reason why. How do you tell people what’s happening when you have a problem with your immigration status? It had been been eating away at me. But if I hadn’t told people what was happening this time, I don’t know where I’d be now.”

After being told by the Home Office that there is no evidence of his being in the UK before 2001, Haisley is now collecting his own proof to the contrary. He has visited his primary school and found registers with his name on them.

He says living in limbo for two years is taking its toll on his mental health, but with no recourse to public funds he is unable to seek professional help.

“I’ve had to find my own coping mechanisms ­– going to the gym, listening to music, speaking to my kids and keeping in touch with the other guys I met in detention,” he says. “But when I get time on my own it’s been hitting me. I try to keep myself busy so I don’t fall apart.

“Even if things go well and I win my case, I’m not giving up. I’ll be encouraging other people to speak out. I know what not speaking out does to a person on the inside because that was me last year.”

‘I spent so much money applying for passports’

Philip Stephen spent 15 years trying to secure British citizenship, despite arriving in the UK on a Commonwealth passport that stated he had the right to live and work in the country.

Born in St Lucia, he travelled here with his seven-year-old sister in 1967, to join their parents in Huddersfield, where they had lived for four years. His dad, who is still alive, worked in an iron foundry while his late mother was employed in a biscuit factory.

Now 60, Stephen lost his citizenship when St Lucia gained independence from Britain in 1979. His sister successfully applied for British papers in the early 1980s but he says he could not afford to do so at that point.

He believes he effectively became a British citizen “when Britain took over my country and raped and pillaged it”, adding: “I’ve been trying to sort out this issue since 2005. I spent so much money applying for passports and was denied, denied, denied. They said I wasn’t a citizen although I thought I had the right to work here.

“Then when I was made redundant I retrained as a security guard. But I was asked for ID at my interview and told my old passport and documents from St Lucia had no value so the job offer was withdrawn.

“I got my citizenship and passport last year. I feel relieved at finally being recognised and for the freedom to move about.”

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Interact: Responses to Post-Windrush fears remain

  • Derick Bhupsingh
    07 May 2019 10:33
    Hi I think I may be in need of some assistance l have applied to the windrush team as I think an injustice was done to me

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