Virtually all the early demands for change that issued out of a public shocked to learn what has been going on with the Windrush generation scandal seem to have been met by a panicked Home Office.
An emergency task force to resolve the issue, free application procedures, a promise of compensation, and even full British passports are, we are told, to be made available to a group of people who yesterday were being fired from the jobs, made homeless, refused healthcare, and even detained and threatened with the prospect of deportation.
Immigrant rights groups have received the support of the opposition parties in Parliament for their call for a public inquiry into the way the Home Office has handled this affair. What is needed is a judge-led examination of the entirety of the hostile environment policies which have driven what can only be described as the persecution of this group of Commonwealth citizens.
It is important that any such inquiry should have distance from the Parliamentary arena. Some might feel that the Home Affairs Select Committee has done a good enough job with its recent examination of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and its series of highly critical reports on immigration policy. The drawback here is that government ministers have one last fall-back position they can use to deflect the most severe criticism: your party tried to do pretty much the same thing when it was in power.
There is no getting away from the truth of this fact. The first ‘hostile environment’ legislation can be traced backed to Tory immigration act in the 1990s, which ended support for asylum seekers through mainstream social security systems and also imposed on employers the duty to check the immigration status of prospective employees. But New Labour was ruthless in following up on these early initiatives by ramping up the level of civil penalties imposed on employers who were inadvertently taking on people with proper papers and increasing the powers of enforcement officials to detain and deport people.
Root-and-branch review needed
It seems clear that the Tories are going to continue back-peddling to cover their mistakes over the Windrush generation and more concessions are there to be squeezed from them on this issue. The long-delayed review of immigration policy, promised over a year ago as the basis of a post-Brexit control system, will probably have to be looked at all over again to make see if car-crashes of the kind we have seen in the past few weeks can be avoided. The issue for advocates of the rights of migrants however has to be more than just pushing for the next concession, and instead look towards what needs to be done to build the assurance of a secure status and the proper standard to social justice into immigration policy.
The idea of a rights-based approach to immigration policy has been a constant subject for discussion among people required to think a little more deeply into the issues than most politicians – and even ministers responsible for administering controls – seem to have time for. Its potential for providing an alternative to current systems, in which power is exercised in so arbitrary a fashion as to be almost exempt from the rule of law – was flagged up in a blog published by Migrants’ Rights Network earlier this year.
Rather than be allowed to pass as a lofty but probably unrealistic ideal for the way immigration policy should operate, we really need to find ways to root its central propositions into the public conversation currently underway.
Principles for a rights-based approach
First and foremost, immigrants need to be acknowledged people with an inalienable right to fairness and justice in all their dealing with national authorities. The New York Declaration for Migrants and Refugees, adopted in 2016, sets out nine ‘guiding principles’ for what it calls a ‘people-centred approach’ which need thorough discussion as to how they can be applied in the UK context, particularly as we move towards Brexit.
The Windrush generation affair has told us that we need policies which rigorously disavow racism of both the direct and ‘unwitting’ institutional kinds. The ‘guilty until proven innocent’ assumptions that allowed people to be stripped of their right to work, to receive social security and healthcare, to have access to rented accommodation, the right to drive a vehicle or run a bank account, has to be ended. The presumption behind all immigration policy should be that the people who are subject to its authority are on a route that leads, in reasonable time, to settlement and full citizenship. At all times they should have the assurance of equality of treatment with citizens in all matters that concern their essential health, welfare and well-being.
There is a limit to the usefulness of the pop-up remedies to the injustices revealed over the past few weeks. It is good that the Windrush generation people have moved to rapidly from fear of deportation to the grant of full citizenship in such a short space of time. But we can only be assured that the system has been fire-proofed from such violations of natural justice if we now start to move in the direction of a consciously thought-out, rights-based approach to immigration policy. Let’s see what we can do to get that conversation started.