Now that this shameful episode has been exposed and injustices are beginning to be reversed, we have cause to feel some relief. However, it has taken years for the Windrush to be heard, and only has happened because enough people refused to put up and shut up. In the end their voices had to be heard, and a handful of political figures staked their reputation on standing with WINDRUSH people. How important that these politicians were not blinded by political expediency or the lure of a more fashionable cause.
Last year I visited a woman detained in Yarlswood and she recounted the treatment of other detainees, women dragged from their beds, weeping and clinging to the door frames, bundled like rugs into elevators and onto buses and planes. Some of these detainees were West Indians and we don’t know as yet how many were Windrush people, torn from their siblings, their children, their jobs, their homes. It is unbearable to think of such injustice but we must.
The plight of one elderly Jamaican woman whom I brought to a North London Migrant Advice centre in 2017 comes to mind as I write. Frances came to the UK in 1980 and in that respect does not fall into an obvious WINDRUSH category, however her story raises important questions at a wider level. Frances was born in 1952 in Jamaica and her mother left her with her grandmother temporarily so that she could take up the offer of work in the UK with her husband.When Frances’s mum applied to bring her little daughter over a few years later, the UK government refused point blank. As a result, Frances grew up without her parent and her siblings all but one of whom were born in the UK. In 2001, after the loss of one daughter in a car crash, distraught and yearning for the family she had never known, Frances finally joined them on a letter of invitation and met her mother for the first time since 1952 when she had been a baby of six months. Tragically her mother had developed dementia and a normal mother daughter relationship was not possible. Frances struggled on helping her mother but never getting to know her. Not surprisingly she developed a severe depression during her first decade in the UK and was under the care of the Community Mental Health Team in Brent.
Today she is required to travel every month to sign her name at Eaton House, the threat of detention and removal always present and following her, infirm as she is and in a lot of pain. Frances plays an important role as grandmother, mother and sister yet she is ‘illegal,’ a person without status. If Frances were to be removed back to Jamaica, she would be separated again from her family by an immigration policy that divides families in a manner reminiscent of colonial oppression. She has spent the last decade clinging quite literally to the door frames of her life. In fact her whole life story is framed by an immigration policy which has treated her as a number, not as a person belonging to a family and a community. It is unthinkable that Frances could end up being dragged from her bed, and onto a plane, to fulfil the quotas of a hostile environment policy. That is why it was a great encouragement to her when she received a call from the Migrant Centre lawyer advising her that they are exploring her case again in the light of Windrush.
Those of you who read my last blog entry may remember Henry, an Islington resident and Manna client who has been deprived of welfare support since February 2018. There is good news and bad news this last week as Henry now has indefinite Leave to Remain, fast tracked by the Windrush team, after an interview two weeks ago at Lunar House in Croydon. However he faces a new medical problem, which was diagnosed earlier in the year, but he had disengaged from his GP in his distress and general sense of hopelessness about his situation.
Another elderly Manna client is possibly a Windrush case, having come to the UK as a child with his uncle, just after the war. There is no trace of him in any institutional records including National Insurance or the Home Office. He has spent most of his life drifting from place to place, doing casual work for a living, consigned to illiteracy by his uncle who did not insist on school. 'Dean' wears Dreds and stands 6'4 tall, and when I helped him move his belongings from one address to another, he was delighted to find Boney M playing on the CD as we drove up Holloway Road at 20 miles an hour.
Dean was living on the streets in Birmingham until ten years ago approximately when he hid in a container from children throwing stones at him and woke up the next morning in North London. He never found his way back to the Midlands once he walked off that lorry, and he began to sleep rough around Chapel Market and behind shops in Tottenham and Wood Green. It was painstaking work to engage him at The Manna when he would drift in, and talk to us about his sickle cell pain and asking for help, because he would disappear again for months. In the end we managed to hold him long enough to negotiate accommodation and subsistence money from the council. Dean is being housed by NRPF funding in Islington, and we have tried to trace his birth certificate in Jamaica but his memory problems hinder. He still asks us; 'are they going to put me back on the street?' in his soft Brummie accent and we try our best to reassure him. Sometimes he wants me to drive him home and play Boney M on the car CD but it is hard in a busy drop in centre to give anyone that level of attention.
As we wait, watch and advocate for Henry, Dean and Frances, provide what help we can in their hardships, we know that something has changed for the better. Henry has won his battle for status and now needs the mess and stress of all its effects to be tidied up so he can focus on his next battle. Dean need never go hungry or cold again as Islington has recognised his vulnerability and determined to maintain support to him. Yet for Frances, the kindhearted matriarch of a tight knit family, the weight of her predicament remains upon her mind, her heart and her tired body. But it is time for Frances and all the women and men in the same situation, to lift up their heads and refuse the shame that has kept so many of them silent. Shame has been used to control and intimidate them but no longer. We are seeing afresh what solidarity and courage can effect in our political system and we have some excellent constituency MPs here in North London, standing with us and our Manna clients, truly representing the people.
Considering the profound suffering of these people and so many whose stories we have not heard as yet, it is hardly time for complacency. Mopping up the political mess, the injustice and the damage to families and communities is not a quick fix and some things will never be put right because that would require the restoration of years lost in anxiety, intimidation and hardship. No politician can work such wonders and no court can instruct them. That is why someone said that eternal vigilance is the price of peace. It is also the cost of justice. As Brexit lumbers into view, we need to keep our eyes on its meandering unpredictability and where its likely to collide. Keeping our bureaucracies accountable is going to be our essential task. We may hope that Windrush and the salutary lesson it confers on hostile environment policies will pave the way for a fair post BrexIt treatment of vulnerable EEs but we are not about to sink into optimism yet. You see Windrush is our salutary lesson too, and its not over yet.