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Scandal in the wind

Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman, who broke the story of the Windrush victims, says none of them thought they would have to wait so long for justice

25 June, 2020 — By Amelia Gentleman

January 1948 – Jamaicans on board the Empire Windrush

LAST Friday I watched a group of five survivors of the Windrush scandal deliver a petition signed by 130,000 people to Downing Street calling on the government to speed up compensation payments and to implement all the recommendations in the Windrush Lessons

Learned review, which analysed what caused the scandal and sets out the steps the government needs to take to put things right.

It felt disheartening to see them having to spend their time protesting once again about their treatment, after two years of apologies and promises of reform from three home secretaries and two prime ministers. None of them thought they would have been waiting so long for justice.

But perhaps their activism paid off, because on Tuesday afternoon, the Home Office unexpectedly announced that it would after all be adopting all 30 recommendations from the Wendy Williams review, which commits ministers to ensuring all the department’s policies are “rooted in humanity”, and obliges them to embark on a “scrupu­lous” evaluation of the hostile environment immigration legislation that caused the scandal.

There have been so many commitments to reform that it might be tempting to feel sceptical about new promises, but if the Home Office really does implement these recommendations, then the department’s whole culture of “disbelief and carelessness” will need to change, and that has to be welcomed.

The Empire Windrush

I’ve been writing about the Windrush scandal for the Guardian for two and a half years now, and the reporting has involved some very bleak moments, meeting people who lost their homes and their jobs, were denied healthcare, or in extreme cases arrested, detained and deported to countries they last visited as children half a century ago.

Initially it was dispiriting to see how little political interest there was in the emerging news that thousands of people had been wrongly classified as illegal immigrants by the Home Office, despite the catastrophic conse­quences that ensued.

And yet there have been some positive moments when it seemed like real political change might come about as result of the journalism, and the activism of campaigners like Patrick Vernon, who organised last week’s petition.

The first came in April 2018, when outrage about the treatment of people like Camden resident Michael Braithwaite reached a peak, and forced the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd. This week’s announcement feels like it could be equally significant.

Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman

Braithwaite – the Camden special needs teaching assistant who was sacked from his job after 15 years, because his employers decided he was an illegal immigrant, (despite the fact he had lived here for more than 50 years since arriving in London aged nine) – was with the group outside Downing Street last week.

He has been tireless in his attempts to make people understand the life-shattering impact of being told repeatedly by government officials that you have no right to live in the country that you call your own.

Every time I meet him I remember that this has been an international and national scandal, but it is also one that has touched many people in Camden.

I was startled to discover that one of the people I interviewed about losing his job and home because of the Home Office mistakes had worked for years in the 1970s at the (now closed) Henley’s garage which stood at the end of the street in Camden where I lived in as a child.

Lawyers at Camden Community Law Centre have been wrestling with this issue for years. Judy Griffith, who worked for Camden council for years as a carer and as traffic warden, is still struggling with debts accrused during the period when she was miscategorised as an illegal resident.

It is profoundly upsetting to hear about the difficulties they continue to face. I really hope they are not still campaigning for justice when Windrush Day comes around again next June 22.

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