The Guardian view on the Windrush apology: overdue and inadequate | Editorial

The UK government has finally acknowledged its injustice to immigrants from the Commonwealth. But many more are suffering from the ‘hostile environment’ Theresa May created

After five months of shocking revelations about the treatment of Windrush generation citizens, the UK government has apologised. This dramatic and welcome U-turn is nonetheless too little, too late. Lives have been wrecked. Members of a generation who arrived at Britain’s invitation – proffered not from generosity, but because their labour was needed – spent decades working and paying taxes. Then their jobs were snatched away, their homes lost, their treatment for cancer withheld. At least two were sent to detention centres and threatened with removal to countries they left 50 years ago, as children.

Legally, they have every right to remain. But, as the Guardian has exposed in a series of stories, an increasingly harsh immigration regime abruptly required them to justify their presence by producing decades-old paperwork. Now it emerges that officials actually destroyed landing cards which could have helped support their cases, despite warnings from staff.

Until now, the government has been dismissive when challenged over this scandal. The prime minister refused to intervene when it emerged that one man was being denied radiotherapy unless he could pay a £54,000 bill upfront. Downing Street initially snubbed Caribbean countries’ request for a meeting to address the problem. As outrage over the grotesque injustice grew, the home secretary made an unusually forthright apology in the House of Commons on Monday. Amber Rudd described her own department’s actions as “appalling”. A new taskforce has been created and is supposed to resolve cases within two weeks. Application fees will be waived. On Tuesday Theresa May went further, promising compensation to anyone left out of pocket; many have lost work and benefits and face daunting legal bills.

The toll has not been merely material. Jobs and homes are part of people’s identities. The stress and trauma are likely to engender an enduring sense of insecurity in those who never previously doubted that this was their home. And the fear reverberates far and wide. Most immediately, these cases fuel concern over how EU citizens will be treated after Brexit. Others are already suffering, with families cruelly split by complex income requirements, an illogical and inflexible policing of other rules and frequently by official mistakes (for which individuals pay, with expensive applications, appeals and legal fees).

Though Mrs May says she is “genuinely sorry” about the anxiety of Windrush citizens, this is not a matter of random administrative errors but part of a systematic issue created by her choices. As home secretary, she boasted of creating a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. This was the necessary concomitant to the arbitrary cap upon immigration. Setting a number, rather than establishing principles, led officials to focus on keeping out or removing as many people as possible, instead of handling cases fairly, equitably and humanely. Setting a number so unrealistically low – and including overseas students, reportedly at Mrs May’s insistence – means that it has not been met seven years later, even with this punitive approach.

Scrapping the “go home” vans (under legal pressure) and changing terminology (the home office now prefers the Orwellian euphemism “compliant” to hostile) were cosmetic measures. The government pursues the same course with a disastrous mixture of grim determination and incompetence. The vote for Brexit was read as a legitimisation of this hard line – or, more cynically, a spur to pursuing it as a political strategy. The Windrush scandal is the result: “If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with this far-right rhetoric in this country,” the Labour MP David Lammy told parliament.

When Mrs May first spoke of a hostile environment, she presented it as a matter of fairness: making sure that all abided by the same rules. But treating people as guilty until proved innocent, making mistakes at the cost of those applying, and handling lives so callously sits oddly with the sense of decency and fair play so often claimed as inherently British – whether those involved arrived from the Commonwealth half a century ago, or much more recently.

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Editorial

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