Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Immigrant deportation policies forced some nurses and medical support workers out of the U.K. before the coronavirus pandemic. Now the U.K. needs them.
Please don’t forget what we do for you when the pandemic is over. Such is the message of a video released in the U.K. last week that features essential health workers from migration backgrounds on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19. The video, trending on social media with the hashtag #YouClapForMeNow, begins by borrowing anti-immigrant rhetoric to make a point about the virus: “Something’s come from overseas, and taken your jobs, made it unsafe to walk the streets.”
The video is a nod to the higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic people, known as BAME in Britain, in medical and other service roles. The group makes up about 20% of the National Health Service staff (compared with about 14% of the total U.K. workforce) and accounts for more than half of its Covid-19 casualties to date. They are understandably wary of the conflict between their status as national heroes, and the reality of their wider treatment as a minority by the U.K. government. In recent years, immigrant deportation policies have pushed thousands of people out of the U.K., health-care workers among them. Now, with the coronavirus overwhelming hospitals, the U.K. is asking people from the same groups whose lives have been made difficult by the policies to return and help.
Among those are members of what’s known as the Windrush Generation — named for the ship HMT Empire Windrush that in 1948 brought thousands of people to the U.K. from British colonies in the Caribbean, marking the start of large-scale migration to Britain from its Empire.
The U.K. needed British-Caribbeans to help rebuild the country after World War II. That included workers for the new National Health Service, which replaced a private hospital system with a comprehensive service that was entirely free at point-of-use. While the NHS jobs provided them better wages than they would have made had they stayed in their often-impoverished communities back on the colonized islands, the Windrush experience was still difficult in the U.K.
“There were tiers of nurses, and most white nurses were steered into what was called state registered nurses where you were given managerial training and progress up the ladder,” says Dr. Juanita Cox, who’s heading up an oral history project on the Windrush Generation for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS). “Black nurses were put in particular kinds of hospitals, more on the clinical side as opposed to ward management. You also found white nurses wound up in general hospitals, whereas the black nurses wound up in psychiatric wards or wards that required particular care. And I think this is reflected still today with the coronavirus situation at the moment. A lot of black nurses still work within the intensive care units.”
Then in 2012, the British government, under then-Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the Hostile Environment Policy, intended to deter immigration by making life difficult for any non-European Union citizens living in Britain without dual British citizenship or residency granted without a renewal requirement. Caught in that dragnet have been dozens if not hundreds of people from the Caribbean, many of whom had been living in Britain for decades after arriving in the country while traveling on Commonwealth passports that granted them the right to settle, but who were treated as foreigners simply for not having white skin.
The Hostile Environment Policy ran deeper than deportations. In 2013, the Home Office started sending letters to many older citizens of Commonwealth countries living in the U.K., telling them they were in Britain illegally and should leave or face deportation. Frequently, this was not true. Anyone who arrived in Britain from a Commonwealth country before 1973 in fact has a legal right to permanent residency, and many letter recipients had received it or were in the process of applying. Others had no idea that retaining their original citizenship could place their residency in jeopardy. They had arrived in the U.K. legally, some during a period when their birth countries were still British colonies. Deterred by the fees and bureaucratic complexity of gaining British citizenship, many had kept Caribbean passports that, before the Hostile Environment Policy’s introduction, had posed them no problems in getting work or traveling.
Suddenly, people in this group applying for jobs or residency renewal found themselves in trouble. Victims of human trafficking appealing for help — in one case a pregnant woman reporting a rape — were deported, and sometimes killed after returning to unsafe countries. Tax-paying migrants found their access to health care, housing and education barred, while the Home Office’s approach seemed to be intentionally vindictive and inflammatory. It sent billboard-carrying vans around ethnically diverse neighborhoods, ordering undocumented migrants to “Go home or face arrest.”
Faced with demands for Kafkaesque levels of documentation by the Home Office to stay in the U.K., many lost their right to work and homes, and had their bank accounts frozen, ruining livelihoods built up over decades. Others gave up and left the U.K., voluntarily but under duress, while others found themselves barred from returning to the U.K. from trips back to their birth countries. Its approach to contesting people’s right to asylum, meanwhile, was so indiscriminate that when Home Office appealed court decisions granting the right to remain in the U.K., it lost 75% of cases. At least 160 people of Caribbean descent were actively but wrongly deported, but the exact size of the group is still unknown, according to an investigation by the U.K.’s Windrush Taskforce.
“There is an unknown number of people who might have been wrongly subjected to other compliant environment measures, an unknown number of people who haven’t contacted the Taskforce and could be affected in the future and an unknown number of family and friends who the scandal has also touched,” according to “Windrush Lessons Learned Review,” a report released in March as ordered by the House of Commons.
The stories of Windrush families affected by the hostile environment policy make for harrowing reading. Gloria, a 59-year-old care worker whose case is cited in the government’s own inquiry report, had come to the U.K. legally from St. Kitts and Nevis at the age of 10, was fired from her job and left in a seven-year limbo after being told she was in Britain illegally. This was because she couldn’t secure a replacement for a missing passport — although the original had actually been lost by British social services. Seventy-year-old Pauline, a former social worker who had arrived in the U.K at age 12, found herself barred from flying home from Jamaica in 2007, even though her Jamaican passport had posed no problems with travel in the past. Stuck in Jamaica for two years, she came close to death after falling into a diabetic coma for which she could not afford treatment — treatment she would have been entitled to for free in the U.K. Former factory worker Joseph experienced yet worse. Barred from returning from Jamaica to the U.K. — where he had moved in 1956 — because his British and Commonwealth passport was not deemed valid, he died on the island because he couldn’t afford treatment for prostate cancer that would have been free in the U.K.
Aside from the health risks, many deportees stood out due to their British accents and clothing, making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of crime. After the scandal exploded in the British media in 2018, a chilling detail emerged from a leak that helps to explain why so many people were unfairly treated. As part of the Hostile Environment Policy, Home Office officials had actually been given targets for a minimum number of people they had to deport.
“The causes of the Windrush scandal can be traced back through successive rounds of policy and legislation about immigration and nationality from the 1960s onwards, the aim of which was to restrict the eligibility of certain groups to live in the U.K.,” according to the Windrush Scandal report. “The 1971 Immigration Act confirmed that the Windrush generation had, and have, the right of abode in the U.K., but they were not given any documents to demonstrate this status. Nor were records kept. They had no reason to doubt their status, or that they belonged in the U.K.”
The U.K. is currently taking measures to help Windrush victims and their families, and thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a whole new urgency to making things right: The U.K. needs more nurses to help them weather the Covid-19 storm. The National Health Service has been asking retired nurses to return to their jobs to help care for Covid-19 patients. While some from the Windrush generation have rejected this request, citing the racism they encountered in the U.K. and its hospitals, some have returned or are considering doing so, as HuffPost UK reports — though more out of call of duty to the people afflicted rather than as an obligation to the government.
People now congregate nightly on their doorsteps to clap for the NHS workers under the banner #ClapForCarers, but the celebration has been bittersweet for BAME care staff whose faces were mostly left out of the initial #ClapForCarers videos and pictures used to highlight the nightly applause sessions.This follows years in which the British government pursued policies that made life hard for people of color with a migration background. The British government is actually obligated to do better by its health-care workers of color, according to the Race Relations Act it passed in 2000, specifically under the Public Sector Equality Policy Duty clause of that law.
Those accolades come at a high cost. To date, at least 91 health-care staff in Britain have died from coronavirus, and BAME workers are being hit disproportionately hard. The first 10 doctors to die in the U.K. while tending Covid-19 patients were all from BAME backgrounds, as were at least 38 nurses, care and support workers that have passed away. When this is the effect on a community — often invited to Britain specifically to work in public services — it is hard for anyone to feel acknowledged or accepted.
As the author E. R. Braithwaite wrote about black workers brought to England from the British colonies in his novel, “Reluctant Neighbors,” “If like genies, they could have been summoned to perform those services, then conveniently commanded to return to invisible bottles, all would have been well."