The government’s hostile environment has created a culture of fear and mistrust that is preventing those affected by the Windrush scandal coming forward, a public meeting heard.
Among the people packed into the Malcolm X Centre on a recent Wednesday night were many who face the threat of deportation from the only country they have known as home, while others have lost homes and jobs.
One woman drove her dad all the way from Birmingham to attend the meeting in St Paul’s. A member of the Windrush generation, he was one of many invited to Britain after the war to live and work here, only to be threatened with deportation now he has reached retirement age.
He says he had been made to feel “like an alien” and travelled all the way to Bristol desperate to find out where he can seek support.
It was more than two years ago that the Windrush scandal was uncovered, leading to the resignation of then home secretary Amber Rudd, and the launch of a compensation scheme for the thousands affected by the government’s deportation threat, which resulted in the loss of jobs and homes, access to medical treatment denied and, in some cases, wrongful deportations.
Speaking at the meeting to address ongoing immigration issues affecting the Windrush generation, prominent campaigner Patrick Vernon OBE said people have been left traumatised by the hostile environment and asked where the NHS support is for these citizens.
“The hostile environment works on two principles; fear and intimidation,” said Vernon.
He continued: “The scandal itself is nothing new. The hostile environment was experienced by my parents when they first came here in 1948. Legislation over the last few years have reinforced racism in the immigration system.”
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The Windrush scandal has predominantly affected people of Caribbean and African origins. The meeting, organised by mayor Marvin Rees and deputy mayor Asher Craig, aimed to gauge how many affected people in Bristol are yet to come forward and highlight the support available.
The compensation system has been extended for two years until April 2023. As of December 2019, less than £63,000 had been awarded to 36 applicants, out of more than 1,000.
Vernon slammed the scheme as “fundamentally wrong”, saying it requires people who are already traumatised and fearful of the Home Office to fill out detailed and overly complex forms. He argues everyone caught up in the scandal should be automatically awarded compensation.
“The Home Office is failing the Windrush generation and migrant communities,” he told Bristol24/7. “It needs a massive overhaul. It’s clear that there is a lack of trust and lack of empathy.”
He added: “Ultimately the law needs to change, it raises issues around citizenship and identity.”
MP for Bristol West Thangam Debbonaire has accused the Government of being “despicably slow” in righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal.
She said: “It is quite right that people who have suffered as a result of government decisions in the Windrush scandal should be able to claim compensation.
“I’ve used every tool available to me to understand the experiences of people in Bristol West who have been affected, and to advocate for them individually with ministers and speak on their behalf in Parliament. I will continue to do this and urge anyone who is struggling with the process to get in touch with their MP.”
Addressing the meeting, Rees said Bristol is proud to be a City of Sanctuary and vowed to join forces with other core cities to make representations to government, while also highlighting support available.
The mayor and deputy mayor will also write to the Jamaican High Commissioner and Jamaica’s prime minister, asking them to stop being complicit in the scandal.
The Home Office says the first payment was made within four months of the compensation scheme being in operation and that many of the amounts paid so far are ‘interim payments’.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are righting the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation. This includes extending the Windrush compensation scheme, which has been carefully designed with independent oversight so that it is as easy to use as possible.
“There is independent advice and assistance available to anyone who would like support to complete their claim.
“The scheme aims to provide a decision to applicants as soon as possible but it is right that we take the time to ensure these are dealt with properly.”
For claimants with immediate debt issues, there is an urgent and exceptional payments policy. Further details on the scheme can be found via www.gov.uk/guidance/windrush-compensation-scheme.
Main photo by Thomas Katan