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29 October 2020

Black History Month: The Windrush Generation

On 22 June 1948 the former German cruise ship, MV Empire Windrush, docked at Tilbury in London bringing workers, predominately from Jamaica, to the UK. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and several other countries were (at the time) British colonies and their citizens were ‘British subjects’. Workers from these countries were invited to the UK in order to fill the labour shortage that occurred after the Second World War, and many were recruited into organisations such as the NHS and TfL. An influx of workers, with their families, continued to arrive in the UK from the Caribbean (as well as other Commonwealth countries) until the 1971 Immigration Act, which granted Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK indefinite leave to remain.

Despite being taught in schools that England was the ‘mother country’ and many of those from British-owned Caribbean islands considering themselves to be British, on arrival in the UK many faced discrimination when seeking employment and housing, where signs in homes stating ‘no coloureds’ and ‘no West Indians’ were commonplace. The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott highlighted the discrimination that West Indians faced when trying to seek employment; despite the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company having a reported labour shortage on its buses, Black employees were refused work as bus crews and were instead employed in lower paid positions, such as canteen staff or workshop staff. Such actions by the Bristol Omnibus Company were not illegal as there were no laws at the time preventing discrimination on the basis of skin colour. Campaigners, led by an action group called the West Indian Development Council, took inspiration from the anti-racist American Civil Rights marches and boycotted the network in protest. A resolution was eventually passed to end the colour bar, and the Bristol Omnibus Company agreed that there would no longer be discrimination when employing bus crews. A couple of years later, in 1965, parliament passed the Race Relations Act 1965, which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places.

Notwithstanding the passing of anti-discrimination laws, racism faced by Black people in the UK continued. There were riots in Bristol and Toxteth in 1981, which occurred as a result of long-standing tensions between the Black community and the police, the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and a subsequent inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist and a 2017 review led by David Lammy found significant racial bias in the UK justice system. During 2017, the Windrush scandal also began to surface, which revealed that as a consequence of a ‘hostile environment policy’ developed for migrants, many citizens of the Windrush generation had been wrongly detained, denied free healthcare treatment, prevented from seeking work and deported to their countries of origin (despite many having been in the UK since they were children). This occurred because many of that generation arrived as children on their parent’s passports (at that time, there was no requirement for children to have separate passports) and in 2010 the Home Office destroyed various records, including landing cards, which would have acted as proof that those individuals had the right to remain in the UK. They were then collateral damage for a policy designed to reduce UK immigration figures by making it extremely difficult for migrants in the UK to stay without having leave to remain. An independent inquiry into the scandal was released in March 2020, which concluded that the Home Office showed inexcusable ‘ignorance and thoughtlessness’ and displayed elements of institutional racism.

In spite of the difficulties faced by the Windrush generation, they and other Commonwealth citizens, made a significant contribution to the post-war British economy and are, in many ways, responsible for making Britain the diverse and multi-cultural society we know today. This contribution was formally recognised by the government in 2018, when it was declared that a celebration, known as national Windrush Day, would take place on 22 June each year.

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