Hostile Environment: How Britain’s Racist Brexit Policy Betrayed Windrush Workers


England appears to have a very short memory when it comes to matters of ‘immigration’, writes Cat Moir.

When the HMS Windrush docked in London in 1948, the Second World War had ended only three years earlier.

The HMT Empire Windrush itself began life as a German cruise ship in the 1930s, and had transported Nazi soldiers during the war. Now the repurposed troopship, en-route from Australia to England, was docking in Kingston, Jamaica, to collect African-Caribbean servicemen and their families, and transport them to Britain to pad out a hollow labour market.

Some 492 migrants made the crossing that year — known as the Windrush generation, the migrants who made the passage contributed immeasurably to the reconstruction of Britain after the devastation of World War II, working in the public transport industry and national health service.

The arrival of the Windrush generation in Britain should have made the significance of Britain’s colonial history crystal clear to anyone for whom it wasn’t already. Much of Britain’s wealth had been acquired through its colonial possessions.

Now in a desperate situation, the UK looked to colonial citizens to help rebuild its island economy. Many people who felt connected to the commonwealth project came, and their ambitions were to some degree fulfilled: Windrush citizens shaped the face of the multicultural, cosmopolitan Britain we know today.

It was far from easy. Racism was always an immense obstacle for the Windrush generation. A generalised unfamiliarity with history has always hampered colonial societies. In opposition to incredulity among fellow Brits with regard to multiculturalism, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Director of the Institute of Race Relations felt he had to state plainly in the 1980s: we are here because you were there.

The lesson, it seems, has not yet been learned. In recent months, the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy — part of its Brexit agenda — has seen Windrush citizens targeted and deported. People who have lived, worked, loved, procreated, paid tax in Britain, endured it in all its most hideous (as well as its most joyous) moments have been expelled and threatened with expulsion, left without treatment by a system they’ve paid into for decades because the government wants to make things horrible for anyone who isn’t, well… what, exactly?

Britain’s Brexit campaign was fought and won on a platform of anti-immigration, welfare chauvinism, and xenophobia. The result of that has included, among other things, retrospectively attacking colonial migrants who substantially helped to create the prosperity and diversity that Britain enjoys today.

Hostile environment policies caused the war that created the demand for Windrush labour. Lest we forget.

Cat Moir is a writer and academic based in Sydney.