At the Manna we are supporting several people facing destitution and potential removal from the UK, and one of our long known clients will be attending the Home Office on Friday to (hopefully) ‘regularise’ his status. He is 62 years of age and in ill health, after decades of tax paying work and volunteering here in London, Henry (not his real name) has been deprived of essential welfare subsistence since February 2018, because he could not produce the documents required to prove his right to be in the UK. This was despite the DWP having access to his tax and National Insurance records going back to the early 1970s.
Henry arrived on British shores at 14 years of age, sent by his grandma exhausted by his boisterous energies, to join his mother with her new family in London but the new family configuration didn’t work out for Henry. He clashed with his stepfather and with no other extended family available to assist, he was reluctantly placed by his mother in a Children’s Home in East London. There he started work and paying taxes so eager was young Henry to make his own way in life. Not surprisingly, his focus in 1973 was not to gather documents in for a rainy day somewhere in a distant dystopian future to account for his continued residence in the UK. Quite rightly, Henry considered himself to be lawfully resident and there was no reason to think otherwise.
Windrush has a shock element of something truly unacceptable or unexpected transpiring. Yet as a worker and a witness in frontline social welfare, it was no sudden scandal but instead the inevitable outcry after years of abusive government policies. The winds of change have been gathering force for many years and values which we held dear as a nation have been eroded, obscured and dismissed by political expediency as far back as 2010. In fact I can trace my realisation that things were changing qualitatively, ethically, and morally back to the treatment of a Tamil Asylum seeker I advocated for back in the first year of 'Austerity'. After a decade living in scrap yards, in alcoholic dependency and chronically depressed, he was picked up off the streets in time for the Olympics. After a short respite in a local authority hostel, he was evicted when the funding cuts started. You could say he was one of the first casualties of ‘austerity’.
When B started bleeding from the mouth and rectum I tried to get him connected, his GP was clearly dragging her heels over making a hospital referral. I found out later through sources he had been marked for detention and removal by a partnership between a homeless charity, the local authority and others. He was facing certain death back in Sri Lanka - but hey when you've got money to save, pick the weakest victim. In the end I took him by car to hospital, once the local Law Centre had faxed a lawyer’s letter over to the GP demanding urgent medical referral for him. It turned out that the GP had ignored test results on his clotting problem and panicked somewhat when she received the legal letter. Forced to support him under the threat of litigation , she arranged his referral to hospital where he was put on IV fluids and mildly sedated. He was hallucinating and pyrexic with fever when they ejected him from the hospital after one week despite my pleas that he needed more convalescence. The hospital administration attempted to intimidate me by threatening to bill my church £500 per day for his treatment. The complicity of medical staff was robust, knowing no doubt their career progress would be jeopardised otherwise. I could hardly understand at the time what was going on because this kind of rejection of a dangerously ill patient had never happened in my whole career. It didn't happen in the UK, I told the bullying hospital Overseas Patients administrator who had rang me mobile to mobile, screaming down the phone at me to 'stop sticking my oar in' as I countered her with; 'we don't leave people dying on the street in the UK, whoever they are. We are a compassionate nation.' It was surreal at the time.
Another asylum seeker I supported in 2013 was brow beaten, verbally threatened and handcuffed, after 11 hours in Lunar House Croydon where I had brought him to attend his first asylum application. He had fled from his African home, a police state, an innocent witness of educational abuse who had spoken up for the victims and been identified as an insurgent. The military police had already murdered his cousin in custody while seeking him. Imagine then how hard it was for Phillipe to discover that his asylum case was not going to be listened to... He was snarled at by staff: 'you are an overstayer, you will go back'. His case had been prepared by me in conjunction with his legal aid lawyer in Brent. It was ten pages thick but they were not interested in it. When he tried to show his referral which I had completed to a Refugee Charity, they told him they were not interested. He waited hours, frightened, shaking and without fluids or food until they put handcuffs on him and brought him out to a police van to which I was an eye witness.
Fortunately the photocopy of the referral to Freedom from Torture which I had made a few days prior to his interview, turned out to be a literal lifesaver. Despite offering the papers to his interviewers throughout the day, it was read by an official when he reached the police cell in Croydon and his handcuffs were removed. They recognised the logo of the charity and finally decided to look closer. Suddenly there was great confusion in the camp! The Home Office staff came to him apologetic, panicked, profusely expressing their concern that there had been a mistake and he should not have been arrested. I brought this man's case to Philippe's local MP and the question she put to the government is on public record in Hansard. They denied all wrong doing but they fast tracked him to Leave to Remain status and he is now studying and recovering his life, after nearly losing it twice; once to a police state in Africa and the second time to a hostile environment policy in the UK.
One last example of 'hostile environment' policy wreaking unjust devastation is the case of a young Polish man slashed with a machete in the face in North London in early 2015 whom I tried to get registered with a GP. He had been discharged from the hospital once his face was literally stitched back together. A week later, still bandaged, I brought him to a local GP for registration (his former surgery had been closed in Paddington a year earlier) as he was suicidal and in need to PTSD assessment and therapy. Despite my clear articulation of his crisis, registration was refused on the basis that he had no utility bill to prove residence. He brought his ID and NI number but they were intransigent at the surgery. I had to raise the matter with NHS England while trying to take care of him. Only after the high level complaint did we receive the referral for PTSD assessment. In the process, I was screamed at by a GP who told me to 'stop causing trouble and get out of my office', while my client listened, trembling and in tears, telling me in broken English 'it's too much, Katie, its too much, we must leave this one.'
I share all these stories because they are documented accounts of my experience advocating in this hostile environment and they are still happening while we are only slowly waking up to them. And they are important and must be heard because more and more we are moving from the values conceived in the war years and birthed in peace: of a nation who cared for all its people from cradle to grave. Something is rotten right at the heart of our country when prominent voices are asking us to accept that the end justifies the means. Yes, we are in a fast evolving digitalised global village, so very different from the world of 1945, 1973 or even 1998. Border control, human trafficking and the pressure of an aging population on public services are all in the mix along with Brexit. But it is not simplistic and naïve to reject harsh policies in favour of justice, integrity and humanity. Anything less is a betrayal of our heritage, and a dismissal of the vast resources of intellect and technology at our disposal.
We will stand with Henry, and have already engaged the help of his MP here in Islington who has written to various bodies on his behalf including the Home Office and Hackney Social Services. We will continue to speak up for those whose voices have been bashed down and literally murdered by destitution, legal aid changes and hostile environments. Windrush is possibly the ugliest chapter so far but the hostile environment has more than one mutation. The Manna is on the frontline of social welfare. and we know what is going on. Windrush is a gigantic error, a seering shame but not a shock. Not to me. And it's not over yet.