Britain has reversed a decision not to meet with Caribbean leaders over a threat of deportation hanging over thousands of migrants, many of whom arrived in the country as children decades ago and are known as the ‘Windrush’ generation.
Prime Minister Theresa May had initially turned down a request from 12 Caribbean countries for the matter to be discussed at this week’s Commonwealth summit in London.
However, faced with a growing outcry which threatened to overshadow the biennial gathering of the alliance of the UK and its former colonies, Downing Street said on Monday that Mrs May would after all meet with her counterparts from Caribbean states to discuss the matter. The u-turn came after a letter signed by 140 MPs demanded a change of heart.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, home secretary Amber Rudd confirmed she will set up a new task force to ensure that those affected will get a "swift response" when they approach the Home Office for help in getting the paperwork they need. She added that the fees involved would be waived.
Ms Rudd also apologised for the "appalling" treatment of some Windrush migrants. "Frankly, some of the ways they have been treated has been wrong, has been appalling and I am sorry," she told MPs.
However, Labour MP David Lammy, who had tabled the urgent question on the issue in Parliament, said Ms Rudd's apology didn't go far enough. Branding it a "day of national shame", he pointed the finger of blame to the Home Office, under Mrs May, which he said had created a "hostile environment" for immigrants.
"Let us call it as it is. If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with this far right rhetoric in this country."
Ms Rudd responded by admitting that the Home Office has, at times, been “too concerned with policy and strategy” and that sometimes it “loses sight of individuals”.
On Twitter, Mr Lammy rejected that response, saying: "Guess what, you're in charge of the Home Office. You should be considering your position because of this."
The u-turn took place after the immigration minister Caroline Nokes appeared to admit that some people have already been deported as a result of not having the right papers.
Asked by ITV if that was the case, she said: “There have been some horrendous situations which as a minister have appalled me.”
When pushed to clarify whether that meant yes, and if so, how many people had been deported, Ms Nokes replied: “No, I don’t know the numbers. But what I’m determined to do going forward is say we will have no more of this. We want people to have confidence to come to the Home Office. We want to give them a message of reassurance, because I value these people.”
When asked the same question later on in parliament, Ms Rudd insisted she was not aware that anyone had been deported because they lacked “Windrush generation” paperwork.
The Migration Observatory at Oxford University told The National that up to 57,000 of the half-million people who moved to the UK before the 1971 Immigration Act came into law could be at risk of being removed from the country. That act enshrined the right for Commonwealth citizens to have indefinite leave to remain in Britain – but those who had come over before that date often do not now have the paperwork to prove that they were legally allowed to live in the country.
They are named after the Windrush, one of the first ships that brought Caribbean migrants to the UK in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Ahead of the government's u-turn on the issue, a senior minister insisted on Monday morning that all of the colonial arrivals have the “right to remain” in Britain.
Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, told the BBC that the government needs “to do a better job” of putting people's minds at ease.
"People who are in that situation, there is absolutely no question of their right to remain, and their right to gain access to services such as healthcare,” Ms Mordaunt said. “What clearly needs to happen is we need to do a better job with the process that these individuals are having to go through.”
Another senior Conservative MP, Sajid Javid, said he is "deeply concerned" over the plight of some members of the Windrush generation.
"This should not happen to people who have been longstanding pillars of our community. The government is looking into this urgently," the communities and housing minister tweeted on Monday.
Changes to the British immigration system have meant that tens of thousands of people who moved to the UK from Commonwealth countries as children decades ago could be deemed to be illegally resident in the country and may even face deportation.
This has meant that people who are now either pensioners or are approaching that age, and who have spent their working lives paying taxes in the UK and often working in public services such as the National Health Service or in the general infrastructure of the country, raising children who are legally resident, are now facing uncertainty.
The dispute is an unwelcome distraction for Britain, which hopes to use the biennial Commonwealth summit to bolster its bid for free trade deals around the world after the UK leaves the European Union next year.
Barbados high commissioner Guy Hewitt said on Monday that he felt the UK was snubbing people from the Caribbean.
“I have held as a great honour the fact that I am the first London-born high commissioner for Barbados,” he told the BBC. “This is the first time I have felt that the country of my birth is saying to people of my region ‘you are no longer welcome’.”
In a tweet, Labour MP David Lammy called the situation "grotesque, immoral and inhumane".
Homeland actor David Mr Harewood also condemned the action.
“All across the Caribbean, for many, England was the mother country. When she put out the call for nurses and teachers to come help rebuild after the war they came to assist and start new lives,” he wrote on Twitter. “That they should be turfed out after 50 odd years hard work and graft is a disgrace.”
Some Windrush migrants have even had their access to British public services withdrawn. A man of Caribbean origin, known as Albert Thompson, has been told he was not eligible for radiotherapy for cancer on the NHS because he couldn’t prove he was legally in the UK.
Another man called Michael Braithwaite, who arrived in the UK from Barbados in 1961, lost his job as a special needs teaching assistant after the school at which he worked ruled that he was an illegal immigrant. “My whole life sunk down to my feet… I was distraught,” he told the BBC.
Some 140 MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, signed a letter urging the government to find an "immediate and effective" response to concerns from Commonwealth-born residents over their immigration status.
The changes to the immigration rules could be a major headache for Mrs May because it was under her stewardship of the Home Office, the British government department that oversees the immigration system, that the decision was taken to make the UK a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.
An online petition which is calling for an “amnesty for anyone who was a minor that arrived in Britain between 1948 to 1971” has surged past the 100,000 signature mark in just six days, which guarantees that the issue will be debated by Parliament. Patrick Vernon, who started the petition, called the move against Commonwealth citizens a “slap in the face” and “an historic injustice”.
“This has created uncertainty and lack of clarity and justice for tens of thousands of individuals who have worked hard, paid their taxes and raised children and grandchildren and who see Britain as their home.”
Almost every British political party, from the Greens to UKIP, have opposed the move, which has also united such disparate voices as The Guardian and The Daily Mail.