In normal circumstances, a meeting of heads of governments of former British colonies is usually a mundane, scripted, formal affair, but this week’s 2016 edition of the Commonwealth Summit of nations could be different because Caribbean leaders want to raise a very specific issue with Prime Minister Theresa May and senior cabinet officials.
The issue has to do with plans by London to send home hundreds of Caribbean nationals who had migrated with their parents in the 1950s and 1960s, some even earlier, on documents provided by their parents. Some never bothered to regularize themselves, assuming that they were legitimate citizens because they had come to the United Kingdom when their home countries were part of the British Empire.
Back then, Britain had put out a spirited appeal to Empire citizens to come and help rebuild the country after World War II. Thousands from every country—from Guyana in the south to Jamaica and Belize and the Bahamas in the north Caribbean—hopped on oceangoing vessels and endured the three to four weeks it took to land them at a British port.
Taking along their skills as mechanics, nurses, teachers and attorneys, West Indians faced rank discrimination from a white-dominated society but confronted various forms of racism, integrated and moved on.
Now, they are being lined up for deportation despite the fact that London asked them to come in the first place.
Many who will attend the four-day summit have given signals that they intend to raise the plight of the U.K. diaspora with May and other high officials.
Once such head of government is Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad. He boarded a flight to London on the weekend, but before doing so his office said that he will have meetings with Trinidadian nationals living in Britain to hear their complaints. Some went as early as 1948 on a cruiser called the Windrush and are now being referred to as the Windrush generation.
Reporting on the issue, the U.K. Guardian said this week that anger is rising in the West Indian community about what critics are calling a heartless action by London as to how it is dealing with the Caribbean citizens, many of whom are retired or nearing retirement and are even now being denied health care and other basic services.
“We did make a request to the summit team for a meeting to be held between the prime minister and the Commonwealth Caribbean heads of government who will be here for the CHOGM, and regrettably they have advised us that that is not possible,” Barbados High Commissioner Guy Hewitt was quoted as saying.
British officials countered that there will be many opportunities during the summit to raise the issue even though it is not formally on the agenda. Some of those in the U.K. have never returned home and barely know anything about the places from which their parents took them.
Senior regional officials say some are now homeless and jobless because they do not have sufficient paperwork to prove their bona fides. Satbir Singh, who heads the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the agency has been overwhelmed by requests for help from people fearing imminent deportation.
As the week began, there was a hint of not only a light at the end of the tunnel but also also what appears to be some understanding by officials as to the plight of their citizens.
The Home Office published guidelines, stating, “We recognize that this is causing problems for some individuals who have lost documents over the long period of time they have been in the U.K. No one with the right to be here will be required to leave.”