On May 17, 2018, then-prime minister Theresa May apologized for the scandal, in which Black Britons who had arrived in the United Kingdom from the Caribbean after World War II were required, after living and working in the UK for decades, to meet impossible government requirements to prove their UK citizenship or residence rights. As a result, they lost jobs, homes, health care, pensions, and benefits. In many cases, they were detained, deported, and separated from their families.
“Five years after the Windrush scandal came to light, the Home Office compensation scheme is compounding its injustice by denying claimants their right to redress for the life-altering losses and negative effects it has had on their lives for years,” said Almaz Teffera, researcher on racism in Europe at Human Rights Watch. “The UK government should hand over the compensation scheme to an independent body that guarantees each claimant a fair and independent hearing.”
In April 2019, as part of the UK government’s responsibility to right the wrongs, the Home Office opened the Windrush Compensation Scheme to compensate members and relatives of the Windrush generation for losses and hardships they suffered as a result of not being able to prove their lawful status in the UK. The Windrush generation, who travelled with a legal right to live and work in the UK, was named after the HMT Empire Windrush, the ship that brought them to the UK.
Human Rights Watch interviewed over a dozen people with firsthand knowledge of the claims process in February 2023. Human Rights Watch found that the scheme is unfit for its purpose and requires urgent reform to protect the rights of claimants. The scheme should be independent, provide legal aid to claimants to assist with the complex application process, reduce the unduly high burden of proof for applicants, and provide meaningful avenues of appeal to address arbitrary decision making. As of January, only 12.8 percent of the estimated 11,500 eligible claimants had been compensated.
There was a strong consensus among those interviewed that, in the words of one claimant, the compensation scheme “was designed to fail the people who were supposed to benefit from it.”
The Windrush scandal became public in 2017 and widely known in April 2018. It affected thousands of citizens and lawful, long-term residents who arrived in the UK starting in 1948 as citizens of the UK or of former British colonies, but fell victim in the period after 2010 until present to what the UK government had called the “hostile environment policy.” The policy, a set of requirements reflected in UK immigration legislation, is designed to prevent access to services for anyone unable to prove their immigration status, with the stated aim of making the requirements so difficult that they would induce people to leave the country.
While the people who came to live in the UK from the Caribbean had a legal right to permanently live and work, the Home Office had failed to issue them documentation to prove their lawful status in the UK.
In 2022, a leaked internal report by a historian commissioned by the Home Office revealed that “during the period 1950-1981, every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin who were permitted to live and work in the UK,” deeming citizens from former colonies not to belong to the UK. The Home Office told Human Rights Watch that the report would not be published because the views expressed in it were those of the author alone and did not represent government policy.
Wendy Williams, the author of the inquiry report, Windrush Lessons Learned Review, said that UK’s hostile environment immigration policy reflected “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within [the Home Office … and was] consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.”
The Home Office has since admitted that its policies have a disproportionate impact on ethnic and racial minorities.
In 2020, a senior Black Home Office official resigned from the Windrush compensation team in response to what she said was the “complete lack of humanity” within the Home Office toward Windrush claimants, saying that she had witnessed a culture of racism among Home Office staff.
Human Rights Watch sent an overview of its findings to the Home Office on March 10, 2023, seeking input and comments, and received a response on April 4.
The UK’s Human Rights Act gives effect in domestic law to the right to an effective remedy under the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires that the remedy be adequate, prompt, and accessible. A similar right appears in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which are legally binding in the UK.
The UN Committee Against Torture raised the Windrush scandal during the UK’s last review in 2019, noting “years of ill-treatment suffered by people from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth at the hand of immigration officials and other official bodies in the United Kingdom […] includ[ing] detention and deprivation of access to healthcare services and accommodation.”
The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said following its January 2023 UK visit that the Windrush generation had suffered “irreparable harm” and that redress was “imperative.” They recommended: “Reparations and restoration of rights to Windrush claimants should be equally simple, without complex application and reporting requirements and with all uncertainty resolved in favour of the claimant.”
“The failure of the Windrush Compensation Scheme and the scandal itself are connected to unresolved institutional racism that dates back to the British Empire,” Teffera said. “To avoid more Windrush-style scandals, the UK government should urgently reform its immigration system in response to international and national concerns about the existence of deeply rooted racism.”