Image by Warren Bennet, Wikimedia Commons
Modern immigration controls in the UK are exactly the same age (to the day) as our EU membership. The whole structure of them can be changed.
Before and after World War II there were around 600 million British people eligible to enter and live in the UK from the colonies and the commonwealth as “British subjects”. From 1949 the new term “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” was coined, but they continued to enjoy the right to enter, live and work in the UK as citizens. Racist agitation in the 1960s led to the UK tightening its borders to the entry of non-white citizens through the Immigration Acts in 1962 and 1968. The latter Act was later found by the European Commission of Human Rights to have been racially discriminatory and motivated by racism towards East Africans. The basis of the modern immigration system is set in the Immigration Act 1971. Without setting out all the details, the basic position was that citizens who lived in the UK on 1 January 1973 (coincidentally the day we joined the EU) were entitled to stay indefinitely and were exempt from deportation. Children of such people are also (largely) in the UK legally.
People live in the UK legally under a variety of different statuses. Often they do not trouble to formalise or promote their status to citizens where it is not necessary to do so. Recently the government has imposed requirements on people who have a perfect legal right to citizenship or to live in the UK, to prove as much. It has also created a deliberately “hostile environment” which has meant that there are many more moments when the necessity of proving one’s status arise (entitlement to benefits, renting a flat, access to the NHS etc). The government has also cut legal aid so that people in the position of having to prove their rights have found it much more difficult to do so. Those who cannot prove entitlement are then denied their rights and subject to detention and deportation.
The term “Windrush generation” perhaps masks the fact that problems are not limited to people from the Caribbean since East Africans and South Asians in particular are affected by these measures. Nor are the problems limited to those who came as citizens between 1948 and 1973. The hostile environment cuts much deeper into commonwealth citizens’ communities: children, grandchildren, spouses, those who arrived legally after 1973 and many others with unclear statuses are all affected.
Nor are these issues limited to Commonwealth citizens. At the same time the government is also effecting mass removal of EU nationals in the face of similar free movement rights to those held by Commonwealth citizens. Over 3,000 people largely from Poland, Romania and the Baltic states have been removed under Operation Nexus since 2012. Many are vulnerable economically or due to be the victims of organised crime (such as women trafficked to the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation). Operation Nexus is being used to detain and remove anyone who has had contact with state authorities.
After Brexit, the scandals will only increase as the incompetence, hostility and nativism of the Home Office is brought to bear on millions of people who have legal rights to be in the UK.
The Home Office is now out of step with the population. The trajectory of its policies can be turned around. A group of us have started a new organisation which aims to do this. It is called Kindred.