After living and working in the UK for over fifty years, the Windrush Generation continues to fight against Britain’s deportation efforts.
“Don’t forget where you come from. They want you to go to work in their country and when they’re finished with you they will send you back.”
Phillip Brown (1896-1987)
Phillip Brown’s first-hand experiences of injustice and racism as a voluntary migrant worker in Panama during the early 1900s, gave him a crucial perspective. In the above quote in 1962, he shared with his children insight from his encounters as an immigrant labourer before they too, left Jamaica for the United Kingdom in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Based on Brown’s experience of racism, segregation, injustice and danger in Panama, his key message to his three, adult sons and a daughter was that “your labour is expendable.” Brown was part of a wave Caribbeans who emigrated from their island-nations to the canal zone to work in conditions that were often unsafe and back-breaking. Other Caribbean migrants went to Costa Rica and Cuba, but never returned.
Olive Senior documents the harrowing experiences of migrants in her book, Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. Senior details accounts of migrants who literally risked life and limb in the construction of the Panama Railroad and Canal from 1850-1914.
Their voluntary separation from home and family in search of economic gain became a pattern throughout the Caribbean. With its genesis in the Post Emanciption era, people willingly crossed continents to find work when their home countries recovering from colonialism were just developing its infrastructure.
Decades later, tens of thousands of eager young adults moved to “The Mother Country,” the UK. The migrants were known as the “Windrush generation,” named after one of the many ships carrying workers from the Caribbean. Whereas across the world today, observers note mobile migratory patterns as people are forced to flee for reasons of war, famine, political unrest and in search of peace and economic opportunity; Caribbean migrants volunteered to move to the UK upon the direct invitation of the British government. The official request was part of England’s efforts to reconstruct the country following the devastation of World War II.
Since Windrush citizens were part of the British Empire and played an essential part in rebuilding the UK, they considered themselves “British” and idealized “The Mother Country”. As products of a colonial education system, they learned to recite poems about daffodils, which did not grow in the Caribbean, but they were taught nothing about their contemporaries; such as political thinker and organiser, Marcus Garvey or poet, Claude Mc Kay.
They sailed across the Atlantic under the illusion that the dark blue passports they clutched proved that they were British citizens. In fact, they were citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies. However, many did not understand that when their countries of origin gained independence from Britain, their nationalities immediately changed.
While some Caribbean-born British nationals understood the change in status and made the efforts to formalise their citizenship, many did not; be them ignorant or scared. Now, these are the Windrush citizens who find themselves on the sharp end of the UK government’s hostile and xenophobic immigration policies.
Declared alien by the UK government and stripped of their human rights. After living and working in the “land of hope and glory” for over fifty years, many have lost their jobs, homes and state benefits. Others have been detained and deported. Also, there has been one reported suicide of a detainee and the deaths of three Windrush citizens in Jamaica who were wrongly deported.
Frankie Williams, the Coordinator of Septimus Severus, a Coventry based community organisation, expresses concerned about “specific amnesia in UK history that continually neglects that there has always been an African presence in Britain and the making and shaping of what is now known as the United Kingdom.”
With interest in community infrastructure and participation, the Williams says he is alarmed about the number of Windrush citizens who are “now being declared stateless and alien in a country and denied access to the very same public services and institutions which they were invited to build.”
Williams notes that the Windrush scandal is being conflated with the issue of immigration and believes that “the immigration policy must be just and equitable…and the issues in the world causing mass migration must be vigorously addressed . . . but it is paramount that people understand that this is not an immigration issue. This is a matter of stripping people of their citizenship and human rights protections. It breached their democratic rights.”
Looking across the Atlantic to the United States, Williams finds the treatment of peoples of the African diaspora “most concerning, in particular what we see in the US is a reverting to a hostile environment reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s ‘fueled by‘ hostility and racial bigotry.”
Equally concerned is April- Louise Pennant, an Economics and Social Research Council Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham. As a UK-born citizen with parents who are Nigerian and Jamaican nationals, she was initially confused about the Windrush scandal.
The media exposé of the British government’s decision to destroy important travel records of its Windrush citizens, and efforts to detain and deport others have shocked her into action.“I want to be a part of as many events as possible to honour and represent [my] forefathers whose sacrifice made it possible to be doing a PhD and to educate people more about what was happening and how wrong it is,” says Pennant.
She believes that although formal education can be used to restrict and hinder, it can also “train the mind to navigate complex and unequal societies and is a a factor in social empowerment.” Her own research focuses on the educational journeys of girls of African- Caribbean origin in the UK.
In addition to formal education, Williams believes that solving the problems exist within the Black community itself. He says, “We should not be reliant on institutions to bring about change. We need to organise as a people and bring about change. People of the diaspora need to organise on a local, national and global level . . . to bring about political reform of the apparatus that continually criminalizes and denounces our humanity. This means using our vote in a strategic manner and holding public office representatives to account.”
Matt Western, a UK Member of Parliament, reflects on the Windrush scandal in his statement that “it seems that the government has publicly backtracked” on the “hostile environment policy which it had before.” Western encourages Windrush citizens and other constituents to be active.
Continues Western. “A lot of people don’t think they can approach their MP about certain things. To be honest, twenty years ago I didn’t think to do that, but wealthy white people come to us for the slightest thing. They know all the buttons to press. I think the message is to put pressure on. Use all the tools that are out there.”
For the three wrongly deported Windrush Citizens who have reportedly died in Jamaica, the suggestions and solutions are too late. Another 57-year-old Windrush victim and campaigner, Sarah O’ Connor, was found dead at her home in the UK on Sunday September 16, 2018. Those who remain, have assumed that after being invited to reconstruct a post-war Britain, that they were British citizens .
Now, it appears that the public have softened with the exposure of hardline tactics carried out by Home Offices that force citizens to prove their right to live in the UK. In practice, however, cases are still being reported of children of Windrush generation being forced to depend on public charity while the UK government’s ministerial departments investigate individual cases.
Upon reflection, could it be that while many Windrush citizens sailed optimistically to the “Mother Country,” they forgot who they were. They unheeded or were uninformed of the advice of earlier Caribbean migrant workers like Phillip Brown. In the haste, to assimilate and “be British,” they forgot their identity. As a result, many of the British-born children of the Windrush generation never learned the history, stories and proverbs of their parents who were ashamed of their ‘small island’ rural, Caribbean past.
Now, these Windrush citizens find themselves stripped of their tenuous claims to Britishness. Perhaps they forgot that a passport is only a travel document. They invested identity into a document which in the end meant nothing. They were never British. Now they have to prove it.
Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant. Studying in the UK and Paris, she is the first producer of the longest running TV programs, “Hill an’ Gully Ride,” which is still on the air. Selected by the BBC in 2007, to explore her family history took her to Zanzibar and Tanzania, which is chronicled in her book, Journey to Zanzibar. Currently, she teaches media production and English and also operates as a consultant.