British Prime Minister Theresa May is responsible for one of the country’s most morally reprehensible policies of the modern era, and for its execution. This is the inhumane “hostile environment” for suspected illegal immigrants, which has deprived British citizens born abroad of basic human rights. This is the Windrush Scandal.
At a time when we are mesmerized by grotesque authoritarian populists, we should not overlook the quieter evil whereby mundane politicians bureaucratize inhumanity.
The Empire Windrush was a ship that in 1948 brought 948 migrants from Jamaica to Britain, and became the symbol of Afro-Caribbean immigration to Britain to help meet the labor shortage over the following decades. Most migrants were subjects of British colonial territories. All automatically became British when the 1973 immigration reform was enacted. Among them were thousands of children travelling on their parents (or other family members’) passports. Those children, now in their fifties and sixties, have lived their entire adult lives in Britain.
But over the last four years, many of them could not prove their Britishness to the exacting standards of merciless bureaucratic procedures that have successfully implemented the government’s vision of a hostile environment. This treats people as guilty unless proven innocent, alien unless proven citizens. So, with the relentless momentum of a quota system and a railway timetable, many of people who have lived in Britain all their lives, been employed in useful jobs, paid their taxes and contributed to their communities, have been deprived their jobs, pensions, health care, housing, and residence; some have been arrested and deported; many more have been living in fear. Families have been broken up, people’s mental health has broken down.
This is not a policy failure. It is a policy success. It is entirely the foreseeable human toll of the 2014 Immigration Act being faithfully implemented. Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time. Others in the bureaucracy may plead that they were just carrying out orders: not she.
One visible manifestation of the hostile environment was a fleet of so-called “go home” vans emblazoned with the message that if you were in the UK illegally, you face arrest and deportation, with a number to call. This led to less than a dozen self-referred deportations, but it dramatically advertised how the government was pandering to xenophobes. More systematically, the policy put responsibility on landlords, employers, and physicians to determine whether someone was legitimately a British citizen before renting property to them, giving them a job, or giving them medical treatment, or else face a fine—a direct cause of many injustices. The policy had a numerical target for lowering net immigration (one that absurdly included foreign students among its numbers), and created an ethos and incentives for immigration officers to find pretexts for deporting people. Previously, an immigration officer had power of discretion as to whether an individual who didn’t have the right documentation was indeed really who they said they were—for example by testing their knowledge of the local schools and shops in the place they said they were living—and allow them to stay, or return if they had travelled abroad. This workable system was replaced with mechanical and non-negotiable requirements for producing extremely onerous forms of documentation for legitimate residence for every single year of life, along with targets for the number of people to be removed from the country—preferably voluntarily but by other means if the quotas weren’t met. Correctly fearing that this process of “guilty until proven innocent” would lead to violations of rights, experienced immigration officers protested, and many left.
British citizens who have grown up in the country, who have never had reason to apply for a passport, will of course find it difficult to produce several pieces of written documentation for legitimate residence for every single year of their lives, going back decades. The plight of the Windrush generation was made much worse by an extraordinary Home Office decision to destroy the records of the people who arrived on the ships from that era. This meant that inquiries from people threatened with deportation received the reply, “no record can be found of your arrival.”
Most anti-immigrant policies—for example in the U.S.—focus on stopping people getting in or on finding and removing people illegally in the country. British policy is to remove its own citizens, who happen to have been born abroad, unless they can meet arbitrary and exacting demands for documentation, which the government itself has done its best to make impossible.
The shocking cases of individual violations and suffering are not the regrettable outcome of the overly strict enforcement of bureaucratic rules. The scandal is not the result of the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd being more zealous than her predecessor in striving to meet the targets (for 2015/16 the annual target was 12,000). It is the direct, predictable and inhumane outcome of a policy that was inhumane in its philosophy, ethics, and design. The person in charge at the time was Theresa May. It is her success, and her failure.
Theresa May’s entitlement to national leadership is her claim to take responsibility for hard decisions. She is a prosaic, mechanical person, not a radically depraved monster. Responding belatedly and reluctantly to the Windrush scandal, she hasn’t given the slightest acknowledgement of responsibility for such profoundly abhorrent violations. She seems to think that apologies and remedial actions such as compensation, or the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, are enough. Not so. May has no excuses: she is today’s incarnation of the banality of evil.
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