Yasmin’s Eye on …. Windrush Day. It will always be a bittersweet anniversary

Anti-immigration politicians and Britons habitually proclaim that Britain has always generously welcomed refugees and migrants. It’s a lie. A deliberate, nauseating lie. Immigrants of colour and Jewish heritage have been put through the fires for venturing to these isles for centuries.

Windrush Day, on 22 June, honours the first arrivals on Empire Windrush from the Caribbean on that day in 1948. More on that commemoration later. First I’d like to remind readers of the anti-immigrant racist attitudes and behaviours that are embedded in this nation’s history.

Queen Elizabeth I, a sponsor of buccaneers and seadogs like Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and slaver John Hawkins, was so disturbed by the presence of black people brought into her land that she issued an edict: ” … there are of late diver Blackmores brought into this realme, of which kinds of people there are already here to manie… Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande”. You see in this the antecedent to Theresa May’s hostile environment. The “Blackmores”, small in number, servants of white money-makers, disregarded the order, stayed on. In 1764, the Gentlemen’s Magazine claimed almost 20,000 black people were settled in London. They melded into the population. Some racists could be their descendants.

Needed but never wanted

That early duplicitous, exploitative British approach to migration and asylum carried on: outsiders were needed but not wanted, never good enough, never accepted as people of these isles, useful but needing to be constantly rebuffed and excluded. Some “good immigrants” were and are, embraced, solid capitalists and mimic nativists. Like Suella Braverman and the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The rest are perpetually treated as inferior beings or a threat to Great Britain.

So on to that June day when the Empire Windrush landed and 493 passengers, who had paid £28 and 10 shillings for the one-way fare to move to the United Kingdom to work arrived. Several were former servicemen, volunteers who had fought with the allies. They were needed – to rebuild the country and construct the welfare state – but not wanted.

A nasty Labour tradition

The government delayed the docking and considered rerouting the ship to East Africa. But they were British subjects and had right of entry. As Wilf Sullivan wrote in a blog on the TUC website: “Britain’s dire economic situation and an acute shortage of labour should have meant the arriving citizens were greeted with open arms. They weren’t. A letter from MPs to then prime minister Clement Attlee complained that unless controls were introduced on the movement of black British subjects into Britain, the country would become an ‘open reception centre’ for immigrants.” Keir Starmer’s apparent anti-immigration views are a continuation of that nasty, Labour tradition.

The moving stories of some early settlers can be read in Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain by Trevor and Mike Phillips. Campaigner and journalist, Patrick Vernon, himself of Jamaican heritage, befriended Eddie Martin Noble, one of the original Caribbean migrants and inspiration for Andrea Levy’s extraordinary novel, Small Island. Noble died in 2007, and Vernon went on to make A Charmed Life, a documentary about the tough life he had lived in the 50s and 60s. And his strength and spirit.

He then began a toilsome campaign to establish Windrush Day. In the ensuing four years, small events were organised in Brixton and Birmingham. And then a bombshell. In 2017, Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian wrote exposés of the institutional persecution of long-settled Caribbeans, most of whom had the legal right to be here. Theresa May was behind this drive. Those pursued didn’t have the paperwork they needed to confirm their status and the landing cards of the Windrush arrivals had been destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. Suddenly stateless, they were prevented from accessing healthcare, work and housing. Many were threatened with deportation and at least 83 people who had arrived before 1973 were secretly deported.

Windrush Day

Theresa May apologised in 2018. An inquiry was announced and a compensation scheme established. An estimated 15,000 people were eligible. Many applicants are still waiting. Some have died.

In that same year, 2018, Windrush Day was established. Vernon sounds very emotional when we talk. He achieved what he wanted, but the Windrush scandal made him realise that bad faith continues. He names some of those who suffered till the end – “Sarah O’Connor, Paulette Wilson, Dexter Bristol, and many others that families are still grieving and still fighting for justice and compensation reflect that Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

Windrush Day is a time of remembrance of the many who crossed the sea, with love and intrepidity and hope, to reach the “motherland” and the motherland’s cold denial of these children of her old empire. That so many have overcome impossible obstructions and terrible injustices to rise to the very top, shows their resilience, not this country’s benevolence. Too many didn’t make it. That’s why it will always be a bittersweet anniversary. And why Vernon will keep on fighting.

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