LONDON – An independent report sharply criticized Britain's Conservative government on Thursday for the way it treated long-term U.K. residents who were wrongly caught up in a government drive to reduce illegal immigration.
The report said the U.K. Home Office exhibited “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” towards the issue of race and the history of the mostly Caribbean immigrants involved that are “consistent with some definitions of institutional racism.”
Those affected belong to the “Windrush generation,” named for the ship Empire Windrush, which in 1948 brought hundreds of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. The country was then seeking nurses, railway workers and others to help it rebuild after the devastation of World War II.
They and subsequent Caribbean migrants came from British colonies or ex-colonies and had an automatic right to settle in the U.K. But some became ensnared by tough new rules introduced beginning in 2012 that were intended to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.
In recent years, some of them, now elderly, were refused medical care or threatened with deportation because they could not produce paperwork proving their right to reside in the U.K. Some were even deported.
Lead author Wendy Williams, a lawyer and former inspector of police, said "members of the Windrush generation and their children have been poorly served by this country.
“They had every right to be here and should never have been caught in the immigration net," she said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel apologized to those caught up in the scandal, who endured “insensitive treatment by the very country they called home."
“There is nothing that I can say today which will undo the pain, the suffering and the misery inflicted upon the Windrush generation," she told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
“What I can do is say that on behalf of this and successive governments, I am truly sorry for the actions that spanned decades and I'm sorry that people's trust has been betrayed.”
Legal Windrush migrants had been denied housing, jobs or medical treatment because of requirements that landlords, employers and doctors in the U.K. check people’s immigration status. Others were told by the government that they were in Britain illegally and had to leave.
The scandal drew in former Prime Minister Theresa May, who was home secretary when the "hostile environment” policy was introduced. May apologized Thursday and said the government had to take heed of the report's findings.
“This generation came here, they were British, they were here legally, they worked to build our country and they should not have been treated in this way," she said.
Among 30 recommendations, Williams argued for a review of the hostile environment policy and said the Home Office should establish a race advisory board.
A compensation scheme has been set up for with an estimated budget of at least 200 million pounds ($229 million). But campaigners have criticized the "paltry" number of people who have so far received payments and called the process “slow and onerous.”
David Lammy, a lawmaker from the main opposition Labour Party whose parents came to Britain from Guyana, said in light of the coronavirus pandemic it was “hard to imagine" a worse time for this report to be published.
“For the sake of all those black British citizens who were deported, detained, made homeless, jobless, denied healthcare housing and welfare by their own government, we cannot allow this news to be buried,” he said in a tweet.
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