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18 April 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 6:43am

The government has failed to learn the lessons of Windrush

By Omar Khan

Last April the public were made aware that long-term British Caribbean residents and citizens were being locked up and forcibly removed, and denied jobs, health care, education, housing and employment because of the government’s “hostile environment” immigration policies. We were all shocked and ashamed at these injustices and the cruel treatment of the Windrush generation. 

One year on what lessons have we learned? While many of the causes, such as the hostile environment, are now familiar, two key issues are not well enough understood – and explain why the policies and practices that led to Windrush injustice have not been overturned.

Firstly, the government has failed to understand or implement race discrimination legislation. Many people and organisations working in the field highlighted time and again that hostile immigration policies would lead to racial discrimination.
The “Right to Rent” policies recently deemed by the High Court to inevitably lead to racial discrimination are a case in point. As soon as they were proposed in 2013, Runnymede was one of a number of organisations pointing out the policies would lead to race discrimination.

The Home Office response to claims of racial discrimination was that there was none, because any disproportionate impact on Caribbean people and BME groups was an unintended or inadvertent effect of hostile environment policies.

In apologising to Caribbean Prime Ministers and High Commissioners on 17 April 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May said she wanted to dispel any impression the government was “in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean”. But no-one objecting to the hostile environment was suggesting that the government was intentionally seeking to harm Caribbean people; the argument, in line with discrimination law, was that the effects of the policy would be racially discriminatory, and the High Court has agreed.

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Government documents and statements continue to use such phrases as “unintended” or “inadvertent” effects suggests that one key unlearned lessons from Windrush is the government does not appear to understand what racial discrimination is, and why it must do a better job in properly considering the impact of its policies on ethnic minority group. 

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The second unlearned lesson is the need to listen to civil society, especially those directly affected by policies. There has been a shift in terms of outreach by the Windrush review teams, however the government’s response to criticism of policy, especially immigration policy, is still to dismiss those concerns, and there remains too little engagement with migrant rights and BME-led organisations.  

When organisations have raised concerns about immigration policies, government has responded by viewing them as troublemakers and as an obstruction to the implementation of their immigration policies.

Because the government refused to listen, it became apparent that the only way they would respond was through shaming them into action. On 14 April 2018, after being contacted by a number of Caribbean High Commissioners, JCWI and Runnymede organised a meeting of 14 High Commissioners in advance of the Commonwealth Head of Government’s Meeting (CHOGM), being held in the UK.

Without CHOGM, Britain seeking to pivot to Commonwealth trade relationships post-Brexit, and the subsequent national and international media furore, it is hard to believe that government would have u-turned so quickly. Shaming the government was the only option we had left.  

As the Windrush injustice unfolded, and the full extent of the harms became clear, public opinion clearly turned against government policy. In fact, there’s been evidence for some time that the government is out of step with public opinion, with a majority now agreeing migration is beneficial for the UK both economically and culturally.

So far, the government response to Windrush has been to focus on apologies and compensation, and to express shame about the impact on British Caribbean people. There is scant evidence that they’ve understood the three key sources of the Windrush injustice: what racial discrimination is, the need to engage those affected – even those who might be critical of a particular policy – and the commitment to a restrictionist immigration policy that is (inaccurately) justified with reference with public opinion, without accepting any responsibility for those opinions.

Shame is the appropriate reaction when you’ve done something wrong, and it’s a positive sign if not just Theresa May or Sajid Javid, but every MP who’s failed to vote against unjust immigration policies now feel shame for their actions.

But shame won’t tackle racism or fix our broken immigration system. That will take empathy, community engagement, and a commitment to reason and justice – lessons that one year on from the Windrush injustice coming to light still haven’t been learned.

Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust.