Noel Whelan: Windrush treatment could yet be felt by Irish in Britain
New laws require immigrants to produce documentation to establish their status
The HMT Empire Windrush brought migrants from the Caribbean to Britain in what became a wave of postwar immigration from commonwealth countries. Photograph: Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images
The revelations this week of the scandalous way in which the British home office has being dealing with the “Windrush generation” of Afro-Caribbean immigrants have been truly shocking. They will also have sent shivers down the spines of Irish and other European Union nationals living in Britain about life after Brexit.
In June 1948 the HMT Empire Windrush sailed up the Thames carrying 492 emigrants from the Caribbean. The iconic images of its passengers disembarking mark the starting point of a postwar wave of emigration into Britain from commonwealth countries. In the 1970s Westminster legislation bestowed upon this influx of migrants permanent leave to stay, removing the need for them to obtain naturalisation formally. Recent legislation in Britain, however, now requires all immigrants to produce a range of official documentation to establish their status in an increasing range of circumstances for work purposes, in order to rent property, or to avail of the NHS or other state supports.
In the last two years many of the Windrush generation have lived in an environment of fear as they crossed rigid officialdom imposing these new requirements. This has given rise to a torrent of harrowing personal stories. The British press has for months now featured accounts of some of these immigrants now in their 60s being sacked from their jobs, denied cancer treatments or exposed to risk of deportation even though they have lived in Britain for decades. This week the British home secretary Amber Rudd and prime minister Theresa May were forced to apologies in parliament for the way thousands have been wrongly treated.
Life in the UK test
Watching these news stories, some of my friends based in London have finally being prompted to print off the application form to apply for British passports. They are busy rehearsing the online versions of the “Life in the UK test”, which they will be required to take to qualify for citizenship, and convincing themselves that the oath of allegiance they have been required to swear to Queen Elizabeth is no more than an “empty formula”.
Some of them have lived in London for decades and are even parents of English-born teenagers. Like previous generations of the Irish who have made lives in the UK they have never felt the need to chose between or even reflect upon any conflict between the identify of their birth and the reality of their long-term residence in the UK. Now, however, because of Brexit their peace of mind has been disrupted.
The EU is not perfect but it guarantees all its citizens certain rights and protections no matter where in the bloc they reside. It is something the Irish in Britain used to take for granted but which they no longer can
They tell of how frequently they have had to bite their tongue over the last two years as many of their friends or work colleagues give out about the “problem of immigration” and about the need for Britain to be assert its sovereignty again.
The surge of applications from people living in Britain for Irish passports has been matched to an extent by large numbers of Irish and other EU nationals living in the UK now applying for British passports.
The Irish living in Britain have been particularly sensitive to the increasingly anti-immigrant atmosphere in British politics and media. They feel unable to rely on political assurance from both sides of the Irish Sea that the convenience of unrestricted travel between these islands will always endure and that their entitlements as immigrants in Britain will be unaffected by Brexit because they are Irish. It is more than understandable that they are taking the precaution of maxing out on available paperwork so as to minimise disruption to their lives and those of their English-born children in the uncertain post-Brexit world.
Driven by fear
They tell themselves that their reasons for taking out British citizenship are for the most part practical, for example to be in the shorter passport queues at airports. In reality, however, they are being driven by the fear of being outsiders. They fear being treated differently or being regarded differently. They also fear being asked to explain or justify their reasons every time they enter the country.
They fear that rights which they enjoy now under the umbrella of the EU will be taken away or eroded over time. The EU is not perfect but it guarantees all its citizens certain rights and protections no matter where in the bloc they reside. It is something the Irish in Britain used to take for granted but which they no longer can.
Irrespective of whatever statutory or treaty provisions are ultimately put in place following Brexit, the Irish in Britain have reason to be concerned that bureaucratic policy and political posturing will make Britain an increasingly hostile environment, even for long-term immigrants, and even for the Irish.
In this way, as in so many others, the prospect of Brexit is having real psychological impact. The harm which Brexit is impacting on the relationship between our two countries and our two peoples is already palpable.