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Home sweet home

In this article, Anne Mayer talks about the Windrush affair and how it reminded her of her time she was told she could not enter the UK.

As Anne explains, having the “right to reside” or “remain” can be revoked by the UK government at any time.

Last week I watched an excellent television programme focussing on one elderly black man who was part of the Windrush Generation in Britain. For those who don’t know about this, after the war a new law gave the right to settle in Britain to anyone born in a British Colony and in 1953 a large number of black families from the Caribbean islands, which were still part of the British Empire, arrived in the UK. Some arrived on a ship called Empire Windrush, which is where the name derives. There were plenty of post-war jobs, many of which no British people wanted to do, and those young men took them up enthusiastically. Many of them brought wives and young children and they came to the UK on British passports.

None of them, having grown up in their island communities, was prepared for the massive rejection and intolerance they encountered. But they stayed, brought up those children, who in turn had children. So, the man in question in the TV programme, called “Living in Limbo”, had arrived when he was four or five on his parents’ passport, had married a British wife, had British children and grandchildren, and had never had a passport of his own. He had worked and paid taxes all his life and was much beloved by family, friends and neighbours.

His father had died, and his elderly mother returned to Trinidad. When she fell ill and he wanted to visit her, he applied for his first passport, providing all the necessary information about taxes and rent paid, pay slips, recommendations from all and sundry. However, because he did not have a passport, all that happened was that he was slung into a detention centre and told he was to be deported. He also could not work or earn any money while all this was happening, so he and his wife had to give up their home and move in with their daughter.

He fought back, or more correctly his wife did, and he was eventually reprieved from detention and very much later awarded a UK passport. But it really made me think about the shock of finding out that your home is no longer your home. It happened to me.

This was far less serious for me. I am an elderly white woman (American) who has lived in the UK since 1966, 54 years. As a white American, I have never been called an “immigrant” and never subjected to racial discrimination, though I have often been asked when I am going home. It’s a strange question to me. My children have grown up here and my entire working career has been here. In 1980 I married a British husband and at that time the right of residence came with the marriage, although that was most certainly not why I married him. For complex reasons, some personal and some financial, I chose to remain American but that posed no problems as I had a small stamp in my US passport saying that I had the right to reside.

On our return from an amazing trip to Burma in 2013, after a 20-hour flight, my husband and I arrived at Heathrow at 5 am and because it was not busy, I went through the UK queue with him. I was stopped at the entry gate and told I could not enter Britain because the small stamp in my passport was no longer valid. The Home Secretary had changed the entire legislation without any publicity or word to those who would be affected. The new rules removed marriage to a Brit as a reason to live here and also those stamps. What I needed and did not have is a Biometric Identity Card, which had my fingerprints and eyeballs imprinted.

I did get one, eventually, at no small cost financially or emotionally. At the same time, I was reclassified as a Non-Dom and made to pay exorbitant taxes on my assets in the USA as well as paying taxes here too. My husband wrote furious letters to The Home Secretary as she was handling things about as badly and insensitively as could be imagined. The Windrush scandal was happening simultaneously and the papers were full of it.

Needless to say, that Home Secretary did not reply but some weeks later a very nice woman from the Home Office in Liverpool rang my husband to see if I needed help. As she was as kind and generous with her time as her boss was not, I sent about a dozen other shocked Americans living in Britain (including my ex-husband) to her for advice and she was helpful to them all. But what she could not medicate or assuage was our collective sense of shock and betrayal. From memory that group included a university Professor, a leading journalist, a rabbi and others of similar ilk. We had all brought our skills and talents to this nation, worked hard, paid our taxes and brought up hard working children, all of whom are now British.

So, all through the TV programme, I both empathised with Anthony Bryan, whose only remembered home was London and who was suddenly told he was not British and had to leave and thought how much easier I had it as a white woman from a rich country. Being deprived of your home, your nationality and your family all at once, is a lot to take on board, especially if you are elderly.

In my opinion, the greatest crime, now showing up in the pandemic, is lack of information in the right place at the right time, and information which, while informing, also contains some humanity and concern for the changes it is going to wreak. We/they seem really poor at that in this country and as a professional publicist of some standing, I deplore it.

I won’t be going anywhere this side of heaven, but I will never forget that very early morning arrival at Heathrow when the man in the booth looked at my passport and said: “You cannot come in.”

Photo: by Carole Railton (copyright) "You cannot come in"

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