UK Minister of State for Immigration Caroline Nokes has set out the government’s commitment to support the “Windrush generation,” immigrants who migrated legally from British colonies or former colonies in the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973. The term “Windrush” derives from the name of the ship, the Empire Windrush, that brought the first arrivals in Britain’s post-war drive to fill a labor shortage. The ship carried 492 passengers, many of them children, from the Commonwealth country of Jamaica. Under the British Nationality Act, they and thousands who followed after, enjoyed British citizenship and full rights of entry and settlement. In 1962, however, British law changed to end the automatic right of entry and, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the Caribbean colonies gained independence—and their people different citizenship—a series of British laws further tightened immigration controls.
The story of Caribbean-born Britons took an inauspicious turn in 2012. Changes to immigration law that required documentation to work, rent a property or access benefits, including healthcare, left people fearful about their status. As it turned out, their fears were justified. Recent reports in the British press about longtime legal residents of West Indian and Caribbean ancestry losing their jobs, being denied medical care, being evicted, and even detained and threatened with deportation because they could not prove that they had lived in the country since before 1973 produced a public outcry and, on April 17, 2018, an apology from Prime Minister Theresa May.
The current “hostile environment”—aimed at making it difficult for illegal immigrants to settle in the UK—has meant that many people living in the UK legally are being asked to document their right to stay in the UK when trying to access healthcare, applying for a job, opening a bank account, or renting a property, and some of the Windrush generation who arrived here as children are finding it difficult to do so because they have never had a need to update their passports and immigration documents.
Their plight, however, is not dissimilar to that of EU nationals, who must also think about what documentation they can produce to prove their right to remain in the UK. There are thousands of EU nationals who do not hold passports and/or do not have a paper trail to evidence their nationality or time spent in the UK. Without such documents, they will find it difficult to meet the requirements to apply for residency documentation confirming their status. Such EU nationals will feel the same level of anxiety and experience the same hostile environment that the Windrush generation are contending with. However, for EU nationals there’s the added pressure of having to complete their application within six months of December 31, 2020, being the end of the implementation period. Those who fail to do so enter uncharted territory, as there is no information at present on what will happen to EU nationals who haven’t obtained new residency documents.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, identified this very issue when speaking to The Telegraph for an article that appeared on April 18 on how the UK government’s handling of its Windrush citizens has led to fears that EU nationals could face similar problems. Verhofstadt said, “This could be worrying for millions of EU citizens in the UK who may fear that they could face similar treatment after Brexit.” He added that he expects that MEPs will be looking for safeguards for their constituents.
The UK government has accepted that the Windrush citizens are entitled to reside in the UK and to access public services, and has asserted its commitment to working with any individuals who do not have documentation to prove their right to be in the UK. A new dedicated Home Office team will help such individuals gather the evidence necessary to prove that they have been living or working in the UK, and when such evidence is gathered, will endeavor to resolve cases within two weeks and at no cost to the applicant. Unfortunately, however, while the Brexit talks have gone more smoothly as of late, there is not the same commitment between the UK government and EU governments to help EU nationals. Given the current climate of uncertainty, we are advising EU nationals and employers of EU nationals on their best course of action.