The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing The Hostile Environment

Amelia Gentleman

Guardian Faber Publishing, £18.99

Review by Jamie Maxwell

Last year, reacting to the Trump administration’s practice of putting kids in cages on the US-Mexico border, advocates of immigration reform in the US adopted a new slogan: “The cruelty is the point.”

Those words kept coming back to me as I was reading The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing The Hostile Environment, Amelia Gentleman’s superb first-hand account of the immigration scandal that rocked Britain and shamed Theresa May’s Conservative government. According to Gentleman – a Guardian journalist whose dogged investigative work broke the story in 2017 and 2018 – Windrush “wasn’t a mistake.”

“It was the direct consequence of a harsh set of policies designed to bring down immigration numbers by ejecting people from Britain, and by making life intolerable for anyone without documents,” she writes.

Gentleman’s reporting is exhaustive and the human experiences she details are harrowing.

In August 2015, Paulette Wilson – who had lived in Britain for more than forty years – received a letter at her flat in Wolverhampton: “You are a person with no leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom,” it read, “therefore you are liable for removal.” In February 2017, Michael Braithwaite lost his job at a north London school after been abruptly informed by his employers that he was an “illegal immigrant.” In November 2017, Sylvester Marshall checked into the Royal Marsden Hospital in Brompton expecting to start a course of radiotherapy following a cancer diagnosis. Instead, he was told he didn’t qualify for free NHS treatment and was asked to pay £54,000.

It goes without saying that Paulette Wilson, Michael Braithwaite, and Sylvester Marshall were all in the UK legally. They arrived in the 1960s and early 1970s as part of a group of immigrants, mostly from the West Indies, who came to Britain after World War II on Commonwealth passports. (The Windrush epithet, of course, is a slight misnomer: it refers to a recommissioned German troopship – the HMT Empire Windrush – that docked in London from Jamaica in 1948.)

And yet, for Gentleman, the remarkably callous way in which their lives were ruined by the immigration system illustrates how dysfunctional Britain’s obsession with border security has become.

To some extent, The Windrush Betrayal is a portrait of those lives, and the struggle the victims faced either to stay in the UK, despite relentless pressure from the Home Office, or to return after they’d been wrongfully deported. But it is also a powerful indictment of successive Tory governments, whose efforts to slash net migration numbers in response to a rising political challenge from the far-right created the conditions for the Windrush crisis itself.

Theresa May emerges as the chief villain in Gentleman’s narrative. As Home Secretary under David Cameron and then prime minister, May championed the "hostile environment" policy that sought to drive people suspected of being illegal immigrants out of the country. Her approach was simple: “Deport first. Appeal later.”

Indeed, as Gentleman explains, in order to reduce annual net migration from the “hundreds of thousands” to the “tens of thousands”, am oft-repeated Tory pledge, May imposed a series of reforms on the Home Office aimed at creating a “culture of bureaucratic cruelty” for anyone who couldn’t meet the UK’s stringent residency standards.

Between 2010 and 2018 May stripped supposedly undocumented migrants of their right to work, to housing, and to public services. She extended the network of border surveillance into hospital, councils, and letting agencies. She "dispatched vans branded with the words 'immigration enforcement' into areas of high migration." And she limited legal aid for migrants struggling with their immigration status “to almost nothing.”

One of the perverse side effects of May’s crackdown was that it transformed ordinary public servants – doctors, nurses, housing officers, and welfare administrators – into border guards, charged with the task of rooting out anyone they thought might be in violation of these new rules.

“Private citizens, entirely untrained, found themselves required to conduct immigration controls,” Gentleman writes.

Set against a backdrop of weekly deportation quotas and shrinking departmental budgets, Windrush, with all its acute racial and nationalistic undertones, became pretty much inevitable. In Paulette Wilson’s case, she and her UK-born daughter repeatedly told the Home Office it had made an error, that she was legally resident in Britain. But it made no difference.

Because she couldn’t provide every last detail of her arrival here in 1968 – including, notably, the passport she’d travelled on as a child – she became, in effect, a criminal. In late 2017, two years after she’d received that first threatening letter from the Government, Wilson was bundled into a van with darkened windows and driven to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where “her eyes were scanned, her fingerprints taken, and she underwent a full body search.”

Gentleman can’t identify the precise number of individuals wrongly imprisoned or "repatriated" by the Home Office under May’s watch because, astonishingly, the Home Office itself has refused to keep track.

“The government made no attempt to establish how many people lost their jobs or their homes, or have been denied benefits or access to healthcare,” she writes. “The Home Secretary has written only 18 letters of apology to [people] believed to have suffered significant detriment because they were wrongly detained or deported.”

Gentleman also notes that May herself was not exclusively responsible for the Windrush crisis. The creation of the hostile environment was supervised by supposedly modernising Tories like David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, as well as Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable, who sat on the Coalition government’s migration working group, which was set up after the 2010 election to oversee an “all-pervasive new immigration policy.”

But May seemed almost uniquely determined to see the initiative through, and was unapologetic even after the controversy had been uncovered in 2018. “There seemed very little understanding of the scale of the problem or the depth of the pain caused [by] the policies she had designed,” Gentleman writes.

This remained the case through the final months of May’s premiership, during which the UK Government scrabbled to restore official status to Windrush victims. Gentleman concludes by pointing out that, although the "hostile environment" has now been replaced by the less adversarial sounding "compliant environment", many of the most pernicious pieces of immigration legislation implemented by May remain in place. As a result, wrongful deportations are almost certainly still being carried out and other minority groups are now likely experiencing Windrush-style mistreatment at the hands of the UK Government.

“What about the Syrian asylum seekers who find themselves designated as illegal immigrants?,” Gentleman asks. “[Or] the Indian masters student whose request to continue her studies is refused? Every day new examples of Home Office errors pout into my inbox.”

I’d only add that, on the basis of the evidence presented in this excoriating book, it seems doubtful that the Home Office is making “errors” at all. Over the course of the past nine years, the Conservatives have consciously blurred the lines between legal and illegal immigration for morally dubious political and ideological reasons. They’ve built an immigration system that is punitive and racially discriminatory, that counts people unjustly expelled from the country as legitimate collateral damage.

Members of the Windrush generation weren’t the first victims of that system and they won’t be the last. The cruelty, after all, is the point.