At the service themed Rediscovering Justice in Westminster Abbey last week, and which marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr (News, April 6 ), my thoughts drifted to the numerous elderly Caribbean immigrants who are fighting for justice and compassion in the UK.
Some have already lost the fight and, in the process, have been torn away from their families in the UK and deported from their adopted home to lands that are now but a fond memory. Others face the reality of destitution and detention.
This tale begins 70 years ago, with a post-Second World War call from Great Britain to her then colonies for workers to emigrate here to address the labour shortages. Many West Indians heeded the call from the “mother country”, and, between 1948 and 1973, approximately 550,000 West Indians (nearly 15 per cent of the population) emigrated.
Many of these migrants who came from the Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth faced hostility, however. Some still recall the infamous Teddy boys, the signs that read “No Irish. No blacks. No dogs,” and the “Rivers of Blood” speech. None the less, they persevered; and with toil, sweat, and tears played a pivotal part in helping to build a modern global Britain.
Barbados was able to supply approximately 28,000 migrants, including Bishop Wilfred Wood, the first black bishop in the Church of England, and the champion trainer, Sir Michael Stoute.
It is against this backdrop that, today, many of these immigrants — some of whom have been here since childhood — despair, as they are confronted by a new wave of hostility. This time, it is predicated on their irregular status. Some have been forced into destitution and detention; they also face the possibility of deportation to Barbados and other Commonwealth countries that are no longer their home.
The challenge is that many of these long-term, elderly, UK residents are undocumented. For many, this is a consequence of having left the Caribbean as British subjects, when their islands were still British colonies and perceiving themselves to be British. Further, having arrived in the UK and secured leave to remain — and subsequently [been] educated, [become] skilled and employed, and established multi-generational families, and paid their fair share of taxes in the UK — it never occurred to them that they were not legally British.
The tragedy is that these undocumented, elderly migrants are not being treated as anomalies to be regularised, but, instead, as “illegal immigrants”. Consequently, they are barred from working, refused access to government services, including NHS treatment, and they face the loss of welfare and housing benefits.
Information from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University suggests that some 50,000 Commonwealth-born persons, currently in the UK who arrived before 1971, may not yet have regularised their residency status. Their situation is exacerbated by the Home Office’s decision to place the burden of proof on these individuals to demonstrate that their residency in the UK predates 1971, which requires them, in effect, to provide a portfolio of education and employment records spanning nearly 50 years.
Having recently experienced the compassion of the UK towards the Commonwealth Caribbean after the devastation caused by the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Caribbean is pleading for compassion to be shown similarly to these elderly UK residents who have given their lives to this country.
There is a need for a change in mindset at the Home Office, where it is assumed that only two groups of residents exist: legal residents and illegal immigrants. For there is evidently a third group, notably made up of persons originally from the Caribbean, who feel morally and believe personally — in most cases, with support, and are able to prove legally — that they do belong here.
As we prepare for the Commonwealth Summit next week, there is an urgent need, in the spirit of the Commonwealth Family of Nations, for a temporary humane intervention to be made until this matter is completely resolved.
Such action would provide the opportunity for the UK to demonstrate again its moral leadership, while also allowing the nightmare for these elderly immigrants to end, so that they, too, can join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
May we truly honour the life and legacy of Dr Martin Luther King by rediscovering justice in the UK for these people.
(The Revd Guy Hewitt is the High Commissioner for Barbados to the United Kingdom and an Anglican priest in the diocese of Barbados, with permission to officiate in the diocese of Southwark.)