All eyes are squinting towards the shore, trying to make out land on the horizon after months at sea. A child’s voice asks, ‘Mummy, are we there yet?’ Suddenly, a woman squeals, ‘There, look! It’s the motherland – England!’
On 22 June 1948 HMT Empire Windrush, carrying 500 Jamaican citizens, arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex. Nearly half a million people arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973, dubbed the ‘Windrush generation’. They came filled with hope and ready to contribute after being invited by the Government to help rebuild Britain during the post-war labour shortage.
One of them was my grandmother, Theresa Moore. In 1963, aged 28, she voyaged from her home in St Lucia. ‘I was a nurse and I was invited to get better training with the NHS at Victoria Hospital in Romford. I left my six- year-old daughter behind, which was difficult, but I knew I was doing this for us,’ she tells me. ‘I was looked after well at the hospital but not everyone welcomed us. Hotels had signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” – there was definitely hostility towards us.’
Every brave step Theresa took opened doors for the granddaughter she had yet to meet... me. As a descendant of the Windrush generation, I feel a sense of responsibility to make my grandmother proud because I know how hard she and her peers fought to give me a better chance. When they hurt, I hurt.
And little hurts more than how the Windrush generation has been treated. In 2017, it emerged that hundreds of these Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, stripped of employment and denied legal rights, in what is now known as the Windrush Scandal. They had a right to settle and work in the UK, often as cleaners, nurses, bus drivers and postmen – jobs many born in Britain did not want to do. But, decades later, as immigration laws tightened, they were wrongly identified as illegal immigrants. In the worst cases, many were wrongfully deported – something that’s still happening, according to immigrant rights organisation Movement For Justice. Many had arrived as children, travelling on their parents’ passports and, thanks to the Home Office destroying thousands of landing cards and other records, lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK, according to a 2018 report by The Guardian.
As a descendant of the Windrush generation, I feel a sense of responsibility to make my grandmother proud.
Finally, in 2019, the Government launched the Windrush Compensation Scheme, but, according to the Government’s own figures, of the 15,000 estimated to be eligible, only 3,300 have so far applied, and fewer than 1,000 have received any money. A 2020 independent review also found that the Home Office had shown ‘complete disregard for the Windrush generation’ (Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was ‘sorry that people’s trust has been betrayed’). Earlier this year, a follow-up report found ‘lengthy delays’ in the compensation scheme and warned that victims were facing ‘severe financial and personal difficulties’.
Yvonne Williams, 62, and her daughter Kareca Jones, 44, from Oxford, know this first-hand. ‘Yesterday, I cried and asked God, “Why me? Why my family?”’ Kareca says shakily over the phone. Yvonne’s late mother arrived in the UK in 1962 from Jamaica, working as an NHS nurse. She couldn’t afford to move all her children to the UK at once, so Yvonne stayed behind, only coming here in 2000 on a sixth-month visa as an adult, with her own daughter Kareca.
Yvonne’s siblings, mother, daughter and grandchildren all have British citizenship. Yet because Yvonne didn’t come to the UK as a child, she is not considered a Windrush descendant or eligible for British citizenship. (Meanwhile, rules state that children of the Windrush generation who arrived as adults after 1988 are excluded from the compensation scheme.)
Karen Doyle, co-founder of Movement For Justice, says, ‘The Windrush generation came here and struggled: low pay, poor housing, racism. There are multiple reasons why families couldn’t all come at the same time – Yvonne shouldn’t be punished for that.’ However, in 2017 Yvonne was detained for nine months in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre in Bedford, fearing deportation to Jamaica at any moment. ‘It was depressing being locked up in there. It still affects me badly,’ she recalls. ‘I don’t have any family left in Jamaica, they all live here, and I don’t have anything to go back to.’
A campaign led by Movement For Justice secured Yvonne’s release, but despite this and the fact she has lived and paid taxes in the UK for 21 years, she faces possible re-detention and has no right to work. Kareca helps her mother financially but, with three children and a part-time job as a cleaner, finds it difficult. ‘I worry about food for my children,’ she says.
As a Windrush generation granddaughter, my heart aches – this could have easily been my family. Years after her own arrival, my grandmother broke down barriers to become a social services head in Waltham Forest, London, helping young asylum seekers. She also co-founded a youth club alongside my grandad, Justin Moore, also part of the Windrush generation, who was awarded an MBE for his contribution to youth services. My grandma says, ‘I’ve also had many young people asking me questions about Windrush. They are not educated about it in school.’
Which is a part of the problem: from school curriculums to anachronistic royal tours in the Caribbean, Britain has yet to fully grapple with its history of empire. The Windrush generation was invited here as part of that empire, only to be betrayed. Institutional racism has everything to do with the Windrush scandal. Yet as the Home Office continues to tighten immigration policies, the fear is that the political will to resolve the Windrush scandal is lacking. As my grandma says, ‘People left the Caribbean to better themselves and they worked hard. Their legacy should be that this never happens again.’
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