The Windrush controversy has monopolised newspaper headlines. But what has the anguish been like for those caught up in it? Stylist speaks to three women whose lives have been irrevocably changed.
How would you feel if you’d lived in the UK your whole life then one day, you were told you didn’t have the legal right to stay here? You were no longer welcome. You had to physically prove you belonged here. For thousands of people, this has recently become a terrifying reality.
The Windrush generation, as they are now known, came to the UK from Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago between 1948 and 1971. Many travelled on the famed Empire Windrush ship in 1948, which carried 492 passengers to Britain – a large number of them children – after the UK asked for help from Commonwealth citizens to ‘rebuild’ Britain after World War II. The 70th anniversary of its arrival is 22 June this year.
Today, there are more than 500,000 people in the UK who migrated from a Commonwealth country before 1971, and many more descendants.
But recently – after living, working and having families in the UK – thousands were told that due to changes to the law in 2012 and a new hardline immigration policy, they didn’t have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (also known as permanent residency).
For most, this was only revealed when they updated driving licences, applied for passports, changed jobs or tried to receive NHS treatment.
The pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May and the home secretary to grant these individuals citizenship papers is increasing, following a number of high-profile case studies in the media.
Last week, former home secretary Amber Rudd announced that citizenship fees and language tests would be waived to ensure everyone in the Windrush generation can secure citizenship as soon as possible. Rudd resigned on Sunday, to be replaced by Sajid Javid.
While members of the Windrush generation no longer have to provide evidence of how long they’ve been here – in 2010, in an attempt to comply with the Data Protection Act, many of their landing cards were destroyed by the government – for now, it’s just a case of how quickly they will receive their official documents.
David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, has been a fierce advocate for the Windrush generation, weathering a torrent of racist abuse in the process.
“My parents were from Guyana,” he says. “Their ancestors were enslaved and colonised like millions of others in the Caribbean and when they were invited to come to rebuild Britain and our public services after World War II, they were invited as citizens. The way in which the Windrush children are being treated is a national disgrace. This is not a glitch in the system – this is the system.”
There have been many tragic and shocking stories. Winston Jones, 62, was told he had no right to remain while recovering from brain surgery, while Dexter Bristol, 57, is believed to have died due to stress after his uncertain status meant he lost his job and was later denied benefits. Thousands of others are stuck abroad, unable to return to the UK after holidays or see their relatives.
But it isn’t just the Windrush generation that is affected: it’s their children, partners, siblings and even their parents. Here, Stylist speaks to three women who have had their lives thrown into disarray.
“We’ve wasted years living in stress and fear”
Kirsty Williams, 26, Islington, London
When my grandma died in 2010, my mum wanted to go to her funeral in Barbados. But the government refused to give her a British passport. They said she didn’t have indefinite leave to remain, even though she came here aged 13 – they said she had to find proof she’s been here ever since.
It’s just not fair. She’s lived in London her whole life. She went to school here, and raised me and my two older brothers in Islington, working as a part-time filing clerk. She was so upset, and seeing her like that really affected me. I felt uncomfortable watching her cry, especially because it was all out of my control – there was nothing I could do to make things better.
It got worse a few years later when her driving licence was taken away from her by the DVLA – they said she couldn’t have one because she wasn’t a proper British citizen. It made me feel like she would be deported at any second.
I was very scared, but my mum was even more terrified so I used to try and calm her down. I’d say, “Don’t worry, they won’t chuck you out; it’s a scare tactic.”
But it didn’t work. No matter how positive we tried to be, the fear was always there that they could come to our house and make her leave the country at any second.
Over the past four years, my mum hasn’t been able to work, or drive. She just sits at home all day, thinking non-stop about how this legal issue has taken her life away from her, and getting more upset. It’s been really difficult for me to see her like that, but it’s also been a practical problem – I’ve had to work overtime at my job in the local betting shop to be able to support her, and schedule my time so I can be available to drive her to the shops for errands.
It’s been really hard for my mum to let me support her. At times she’s wanted to give up. But as a family we had to keep on going.
It’s been a huge relief that people are now speaking out instead of suffering in silence, and for us the protests have made a huge difference. This week my mum filled in the same paperwork she’s been submitting over and over for years, and the Home Office accepted it. Just like that. They’ve given her indefinite leave to remain which means in a year from now she will be able to apply for a passport, and she’ll get her driving licence back and can get a job again.
Everyone in the family can finally get their lives back on track, but it still feels like too little too late. We’ve wasted so many years living in stress and fear – and for what? I just hope that the attention being paid to this opens doors for everyone else still going through this nightmare.
“I’ve lived in limbo since I was 26”
Glenda Caesar, 57, Hackney, London
I came to the UK from Dominica in 1962, when I was just six months old. I was with my mother, and we came to meet my father who had already been working here to try to support us. I have lived in London ever since, and I had a typically British childhood – going to school and growing up in Hackney.
But in 1988, everything changed. My mother passed away during a holiday in Dominica, and I was completely distraught. I wanted to go over for her funeral, so I applied for an emergency British passport. But the government said no; apparently I had to ‘prove’ I was a British citizen.
I didn’t understand. I’d been here my whole life, worked here and had four children here, who all have British passports. I’d worked in my local GP surgery for years and I was still in the NHS at the time, working as an administrator, helping the sick and the elderly. It just didn’t make sense.
I was forced to apply for right of abode, but was refused. I was devastated, and tried to apply for an entitlement certificate [an alternative proof of residence], but it was still a no. I was told I had to naturalise [become a British citizen] – a process that costs £1,330 – but when I went for that they said I needed documents to prove I went to school here, but all the records were gone.
It’s been a source of stress for 30 years now. I feel exhausted. I never know if there’s going to be a knock on the door telling me I’m being deported. It’s really affected my mental health. I’ve felt so depressed I’ve needed counselling. I don’t trust anyone any more because I can’t believe in authority.
The government has let me down. I’m not the kind of person who wants to sit around doing nothing. I love to work, yet because of all this, I lost my job. Now I have to rely on everybody else to support me. Mothers aren’t supposed to rely on their children, they’re meant to look after them. But because of this, I haven’t been allowed to. It’s just not right.
“I want compensation for the Windrush generation”
Helen Cappasso, 52, Pembrokeshire
I was with my ex-partner Whitfield for seven years, and we had four children. We’re still great friends and we have fully co-parented our kids: Maria, 18, Daniel, 17, Ruby, 16, and Stephanie, 15.
So when he came to me four years ago and told me he wasn’t classed as a British citizen by the government, I was devastated. He’d tried to change jobs and was told he couldn’t work or claim benefits and that he simply wasn’t meant to be here. But he’d lived in the UK since arriving from Jamaica at the age of seven with his parents – none of it made sense.
He tried to ask the local council why all this was happening, but was basically told, “This is just how it is these days”. We can’t find all the records needed to prove he’s been here his whole life – and we shouldn’t have to.
This has completely changed him. He’s always been a hardworking, dynamic man. But now he has a constant furrow in his brow. He’s lost everything. He had a four-bedroom house but because he couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay the mortgage. So now he lives at his mother’s, or stays here a few days a week to see the children.
He used to give them everything, but now he has nothing. He couldn’t help to pay for Maria’s prom or buy a car for her and Daniel. He’s been sad for four years because everything has been taken away from him.
It’s changed how he sees Britain: he feels there’s a hostile environment against immigrants. It makes me angry too. It’s systemic racism against black people.
Because of his age, and the four-year gap in his working life, Whitfield will never work again. He hates being on benefits – he feels it’s for the weak and needy and he doesn’t want to be that. The kids are furious too. Their relationship with their dad has been made difficult. Whitfield is proud of his Jamaican heritage but to all intents and purposes, he’s British. Now they feel, “If my dad’s not welcome, why would I want to be here?”
I’m campaigning for real change from the Home Office. I also want to start a class action for compensation for Whitfield and everyone affected. They’ve all lost everything. The government could never really recompense them, but a token of, say, £25,000 would help. Just saying sorry is an insult; people like Whitfield deserve so much more.
To sign Helen’s petition, visit change.org
Photography: Gemma Day. Other images: Getty Images