This week’s controversy over the treatment of the Windrush generation has turned into a major embarrassment for Theresa May’s government.
But the implications of the debacle go beyond the Home Office’s ham-fisted approach towards Caribbean immigrants who have lived in the UK for decades.
It also raises concerns that the Home Office might mete out similar treatment to some of the 3.2m EU nationals who currently live in the UK, and who have been promised the right to remain in Britain after Brexit.
As has been widely acknowledged, the issue at the heart of the Windrush row is the Home Office’s uncompromising policy towards illegal immigrants (introduced by Mrs May in 2012 when she was Home Secretary) called “hostile environment”.
Under this policy, the Home Office seeks to persuade illegal immigrants to leave the UK by forcing employers, landlords and public sector organisations to check migrants’ immigration status.
Many Windrush immigrants whose families legally arrived in the UK decades ago lack the formal paperwork underpinning their right to be in Britain. They have therefore found themselves denied healthcare, pensions and jobs — and in some cases possibly threatened with deportation.
The Windrush row is inevitably raising concerns among EU expats. Mrs May’s government has said in the Brexit negotiations that it will give EU nationals living in the UK until January 2021 the right to remain in Britain. But two fears linger.
First, the Home Office is starting to implement a huge bureaucratic exercise to give the 3.2m EU expats what is called “settled status”. But as Joe Owen of the Institute for Government says in a recent piece, the Home Office’s uncompromising “hostile environment” approach is not a good place from which to start that exercise.
“The new settled status process is not about reducing numbers, it is about providing documentation to the overwhelming majority that are here by right. Of course, it needs to identify those that are ineligible, but it should prioritise getting people through the system as quickly and as painlessly as possible. ‘Hostile environment’ won’t work.”
The second concern is that, as with the Windrush migrants, a significant number of EU nationals may not realise that they need to apply for settled status — or may not be able to do so.
As a recent report by Oxford university’s Migration Observatory puts it: “Securing settled status will be more difficult for certain groups of people, whether because they lack awareness of the process or the need to apply, are vulnerable for different reasons (such as abuse or exploitation), have difficulty navigating the application system, or cannot provide evidence of time spent in the UK.”
In short, the Windrush debacle ought to raise fresh doubts among EU nationals, many of whom are already distrustful of the Home Office. But it may also be the kick that finally convinces the Home Office that their “hostile environment” policy is politically and morally misguided.
As Professor Jonathan Portes of The UK in a Changing Europe puts it: “The Home Office is very conscious that they can’t afford to have several hundred thousand EU citizens ending up like the Windrush people. So it may be that they will engineer the system to ensure that EU nationals applying for settled status are given the benefit of the doubt.”
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