From Windrush to Yarl’s Wood: the immigration debate today

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Pit TheatreIdentity wars: race and society


Fifty years after HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, bringing the first Caribbean migrants to make their lives in the UK, members of the ‘Windrush generation’ suddenly found their status as British citizens called into question by the Home Office. Having lived and worked in Britain for decades, and assumed their right to do so was not in question, many found that a failure to produce documentation they never knew they needed meant they were forced out of work, denied healthcare and even deported. There was a huge public outcry, resulting in the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. It seemed that most Brits saw the Windrush generation as no less British than the Home Office officials threatening to deport them, and were appalled by their treatment under the government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy.

Does this mean the government was wrong to think the public wants to see a tougher approach to immigration or were officials just picking on the wrong target? After all, critics of immigration are typically concerned with new arrivals. There is little appetite for repatriating those who have already made lives here. Regardless of race, there is a sense that the Windrush generation had earned the right to be considered British, in a way that Australian bar workers and Lithuanian shop staff have not. The backlash did not necessarily suggest the public is not worried about immigration per se.

Across the West, governments are tightening immigration controls in response to perceived public demand. The Italian coalition government started turning away migrant rescue boats from the Mediterranean. ‘Fortress EU’, as it’s known to its critics, has earmarked €35 billion to strengthen its external borders, while proposals from the June summit would make it all but impossible to apply for asylum on European soil. The UK deports 40,000 non-citizens each year, and many are detained in places like Yarl’s Wood, where residents went on hunger strike earlier this year to protest against ‘inhumane’ conditions, but there has been little if any public outcry. Is the public right to be selective in its outrage? However ill-judged the treatment of the Windrush generation, are we right to be getting tough on new immigration?

Meanwhile, as long as Britain has been in the EU, the government has been unable, even if it were willing, to prevent nationals of other member states living and working here. Since the Brexit vote, many have applied for British citizenship, while others have left, though more are arriving. Should we welcome the fact that people must now choose between committing to ‘full membership’ of British society, with all the rights and obligations that entails, or returning home? Or is it retrograde to make such demands of newcomers?

Should people be able to wear their ‘citizenship’ more loosely, as the EU’s free movement allows? What does it mean to be a citizen today? What rights, obligations and privileges should states confer on non-citizens – and who should decide?