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Amelia Gentleman, reporteur sur le scandale Windrush

Written by on 20 mars 2020

Hier, en plein épidémie, une autre crise a refait surface en Grande Bretagne. Constance Kampfner a parlé avec la journaliste et reporteur du journal The Guardian, Amelia Gentleman, du scandale de Windrush et de ces consequences suite au Brexit.

For a European audience that may not be familiar with the history of post-war immigration to the UK, could you just set out what Windrush was?

“Windrush was the name of a ship that arrived in 1948, carrying about 500 people from the Caribbean. In Britain, we see this as the symbolic beginning to a multicultural country.

“In the 1950s and 60s, there were government recruitment programs in former colonies. People were invited to take up jobs, rebuilding Britain after the Second World War. Around 5,000 people arrived from Commonwealth countries to live in the UK. They came legally, and often with their families.

“But at that stage there was very little documentation given by the Home Office to the people who arrived, to prove that they were here legally.”

What were the consequences of that oversight?

“The problems really began in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Britain became more cautious about mass immigration. Our immigration legislation became much more controlled. People were no longer allowed to have this free movement between the former colonies and the UK.

“And then in 2010 onwards, Britain began to introduce a number of very strict hostile environment policies.

“Suddenly this coming together of two separate problems. Firstly, that you had allowed hundreds of thousands of people into the UK without giving them documentation. And secondly, that there was this new regime of very strict immigration controls.”

All of this comes to a boiling point in the “Windrush scandal” – what happened?

“So from 2010 onwards, Gradually in Britain many people began being sent letters, telling them that they were going to be deported to countries that they hadn’t lived in since they were children.

“Many people were detained, mistakenly, in immigration removal centres. Some people were sacked from their jobs, other people were evicted from their homes. And at The Guardian, we interviewed people who were denied cancer treatment, people who were forced to beg on the streets, even though they had lived in this country entirely legally for fifty years and had paid taxes all that time.”

People were denied cancer treatment, were forced to beg on the streets, even though they had lived in this country entirely legally for fifty years and had paid taxes all that time

You played a crucial role back in 2018 in uncovering what was going on. What was that process like?

“I interviewed a woman in November 2017 called Paulette Wilson. She was somebody who’d arrived from Jamaica in the 1960s to live with her grandparents.

“She had worked all of her life in the UK. She’d even worked in the House of Commons canteen serving food to politicians.

“But when she was about 60, she received a letter from the Home Office, telling her that she was living here illegally, and that she was facing deportation back to Jamaica – a country that she hadn’t visited since she was 8.

“I interviewed her after she had just been released from a week in detention. She had been booked on a flight back to Jamaica. But a local charity had managed to stop her being flown away.

“And when I met her, she was still getting letters from the Home Office saying she was still liable to be deported.

“At that time I thought the Home Office had made a terrible one-off mistake. However, when we published the article about her, I began to get telephone calls and emails from many other people who were facing similarly difficult problems.

“Some people had already been deported to countries that they’d left as children. Some people were stuck in Jamaica and unable to come back. And some people had died while they were in this very difficult process of trying to prove to the government that they were in fact living in the UK legally.”

How did the government respond to the stories you were uncovering?

“To begin with, there was no real response from the government. The ministers first of all didn’t really pay attention. Then, they admitted that perhaps there was a small problem.

“But it was really only after 6 months that they suddenly acknowledged that this was a major problem, that it was affecting thousands of people. Theresa May was forced to apologise repeatedly. And the Home Secretary [Amber Rudd] had to resign.”

Yesterday saw the release of the Windrush Report – what lessons does it hold?

“It’s obviously a really sad moment, because this is a report that thousands of people in Britain have been waiting for for two years. But it has arrived at a time when we’re in a national crisis [because of Covid-19]. So the political attention isn’t really there.

“Nevertheless, it recommends a reform of our Home Office. It says that the immigration officers are very ignorant of Britain’s colonial history and need to be educated. And it says that there were real problems in officials’ attitudes towards race.

“The report is very critical of some of the language used by the Home Office. The way that they don’t talk about individuals, they talk about groups of people, and “immigration flows” and “immigration stock”. Almost as though you’re talking about animals or statistics.

Immigration officers are very ignorant of Britain’s colonial history

“So it’s a very powerful report. I think the question is whether or not people are going to be able to pay attention to it at the moment.

“And meanwhile, we are still seeing people affected by this problem living homeless. Compensation has been promised but it hasn’t been paid.

“Last week, I interviewed somebody who’s been living in Heathrow airport, on and off, for about 5 years, because he has struggled to persuade the British government that he is in fact a legal resident. He’s been here since the 1960s. “

Boris Johnson’s government appears to be keen to distance itself from the ‘hostile environment’ immigration politics that defined the Theresa May era. But do you think towards the end of the Brexit transition period, we could see a similar hostility emerging in the way we treat European nationals?

“I think that that’s why there has been such huge interest in what happened to the Windrush generation. There is this recognition that it could be repeated.

“Britain is going through at the moment a process of registering 3.6 million EU citizens who live in the UK, who will need to apply for status to remain in the UK after Brexit. And so that process is going through, reasonably smoothly, and around 75% of people who have applied have managed to do that without any problem.

“The difficulty is though, that because the numbers are so enormous, even if there is just a 5% failure rate, hundreds of thousands of people could find themselves in a similar position of being undocumented, and vulnerable to the ‘hostile environment’ measures. Which would mean that they can’t work, that they can’t get healthcare, and that they could – in theory – face immigration detention and deportation.

“The government has been careful to say that they don’t want to involve EU citizens in any of those problems. But it’s hard to understand how they could avoid being worried about it, given what we’ve seen in the Windrush scandal, and how badly people have been affected.”

I think that [Brexit is] why there has been such huge interest in what happened to the Windrush generation. There is this recognition that it could be repeated.

A final question : you’ve been covering the Windrush scandal since the beginning, and you’ve written a book about it. What do you think the scandal says about modern Britain?

“Well it says a lot about race. One of the people interviewed in yesterday’s report said it was unfortunate that the people making policies in Westminster were all white, and the people that were negatively affected by those policies were all black.

“I think it raises a lot of important questions about our forgetfulness about our colonial past. That’s one of the most interesting recommendations of this report. Ministers, officials, and in fact the whole country, needs to be much better educated about our colonial history.”

Amelia Gentleman est une journaliste et reporteur pour The Guardian. Son livre The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment a été publié en 2019.



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