In the past week, Britain was hammered from nearly every section of society for its far-right-type decision to sound deportation warnings to thousands of Caribbean nationals who had, ironically, been invited in the colonial era to settle there to help rebuild the country after World War II.
The issue flared up in recent weeks after dozens of elderly Caribbean nationals went public in the United Kingdom, saying they had either been fired from jobs, refused health care and other benefits or were told that they had to be prepared to go back to the Caribbean because they no longer had recognized immigration status. Some were even sent health care bills of nearly $100,000, despite being contributors to various medical insurance plans for decades.
Many who had boarded the Empire Windrush cruise ship, which was sent for them in 1948, answering a cry for help from London, had left home in the firm belief that as nationals of the then British empire, they were automatically British citizens and had no need to apply for legal status to remain there.
But more than six decades later, the government of ultra-right Prime Minister Theresa May is moving to get the mostly Afro-Caribbean British nationals out of the country with inhumane speed, a development many, such as Guyana-descended lawmaker David Lammy, refer to as one of the most ungrateful acts they have ever witnessed.
Criticism of the move also came from many of the dozen Caribbean Community leaders who were in London last week for the biennial Commonwealth Summit.
Many of the leaders had raised the issue with British officials. Lammy led the assault in parliament, which was so devastating to the government side of the House that government quickly apologized and even promised to set up a mechanism to compensate those who had been wronged or deported back to the West Indies.
In apologizing, Theresa May said Britain takes “this issue very seriously.”
She added, despite heckling from opposition lawmakers, “The home secretary apologized in the House of Commons yesterday for any anxiety caused. And I want to apologize to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused. Those who arrived from the Caribbean before 1973 and lived here permanently without significant periods of time away in the last 30 years have the right to remain in the UK, as do the vast majority of long-term residents who arrived later. I don’t want anybody to be in any doubt about their right to remain here in the United Kingdom. We would also like to reassure you that there will be no removals or detention as part of any assistance to help these citizens get their proper documentation in place.”
As the hammering continued and as immigration officials, at the behest of mostly opposition lawmakers, scrambled to produce figures on how many West Indians had been wrongfully deported, the Scotsman newspaper joined in, reporting that London had secretly deported thousands of British Commonwealth citizens in the past eight years, many on redeye flights in the dead of night.
The paper said it knew of 7,600 people who had been removed on the flights, escorted by security officials and chained to seats with leg and waist restraints like slaves.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness was among the leaders who met May and raised the topic. He said the Cabinet had agreed that a grave mistake had been made and moved to ensure that “the right thing is being done at this time.”
He continued, “I asked the direct question of the prime minister. She was not able to say definitively that that was not the case. But they are assuring us that they are checking the records that they have to make sure that that is not the case. If persons were deported, they have told us that they have established a hotline and they are encouraging persons who may fit that category to call it.”