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New Book 'Windrush' Sheds Light On Multi-Racial Britain


The United Kingdom's been roiled this week by the government's treatment of what's called the Windrush generation of immigrants, the tens of thousands of Caribbean immigrants who came to Britain in the middle of the 20th century at the invitation of the British government. The HMT Windrush was a ship that brought some of the first immigrants from Jamaica.

Anyone who came before 1973 has a right to stay, but many of the Windrush generation have no documents to prove that's when they arrived, and confusion about their legal status has reportedly led to their being threatened with eviction and deportation.

We're joined now from London by Trevor Phillips. He's former chairman of the British Equality and Human Rights Commission and co-author of the book "Windrush: The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain." Thanks very much for being with us.

TREVOR PHILLIPS: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And your family's of this Windrush generation, isn't it?

PHILLIPS: Yes. Indeed. My family came here to London in the 1950s. I'm the last of 10 children. I was born here, but all my siblings would essentially be in this position where they were born in a British colony, British Guiana. And at that point, we were all born under the same flag. And the idea was that every one of the Queen's subjects could be in any part of the British empire because we were all equal under the sovereign. So there's no - there would be no difference traveling from Georgetown, Guyana to London than, say, going across the bridge from New York to New Jersey.

It is only since 2014, when the government decided, in an effort to tackle illegal immigration - perfectly legitimate thing to do - that landlords and employers and banks would be required legally to ensure that anybody they dealt with had the right status. And the problem is that, suddenly, after 50 years, people are saying, you can't have a driving license unless you prove continuous residence and continuous employment.

And the cost of it to people has been immense. People have lost their livelihoods. They're losing their homes. They are not getting health care because of this. And it is deeply, deeply unfair.

SIMON: The government has within the week apologized and says it'll waive fees to help citizens who arrived before 1973 secure any kind of documentation. But what do you think is behind this?

PHILLIPS: Well, I think it has happened not because there is some regrettable administrative error because way back in 2014, the government absolutely knew what the consequence of this would be. In fact, it says in one of the Home Office's internal documents that some of the immigration records will have been destroyed by the government. But what they thought was nobody very much would care because it concerns a relatively small group of old people who also happen to be black.

SIMON: When people, including your family, moved to London, this - if I may, in the post-war era, this is one of the reasons why Britain was fighting Nazi Germany - wasn't it? - because London was proud of the fact that people moved there from all over the colony or the empire?

PHILLIPS: Well, you have to remember when Churchill spoke of Britain - our finest hour, we will fight them on the beaches - in the British mind, the we of whom he spoke were not just people who lived in the British Isles. What we're seeing today is a complete negation, and I would use would betrayal, of that.

SIMON: Once again, the government has apologized and said, our bad. Do you consider the matter closed?

PHILLIPS: Until they do three specific things, I think it's just words to try to get them off the hook. First, they've got to tell the public authorities that these people are innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, they should be able to produce other kinds of documents, for example, letters from their ministers. And the third thing the government's got to do is to talk seriously about compensation. Till then, it's just nonsense.

SIMON: Trevor Phillips, chairman of the British Equality and Human Rights Commission, thanks so much.

PHILLIPS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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