Racism at heart of government failure

The Home Office has forfeited the right to manage immigration says Don Flynn

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report on the Home Office policies which produced the Windrush scandal was published at the end of November. It joins six other detailed reviews of the same topic published since the news of injustices on this long-settled group of Caribbean immigrants had been broken in the Guardian back in November 2017.

The reports differ somewhat in their language, but they all reach the same conclusion. The Home Office went in reckless pursuit of groups of irregular migrants through the imposition of a ‘hostile environment’ on whole segments of public services and civil society which were severely prejudicial to the interests and well-being of legally resident as well as undocumented migrants, with the factors that brought about these outcomes largely devolving on ethnicity and income status. Effectively, a dark skin and modest standing when it comes to measures of wealth was the thing that was going to do for you.

That was the Windrush scandal itself. The compensation scheme, hastily cobbled together under Sajid Javid’s brief tenure as Home Secretary, was supposed to offer a financial settlement to cover the loss people had suffered. Loss included being denied the right to work and receive social security benefits, critical health care, being made homeless, and in some cases arrested, detained and deported to countries in the Caribbean which they hadn’t seen since childhood.

Toxic compensation scheme

But, being the Home Office, even the task of managing this scheme could not be undertaken without dragging racism and cold contempt for the lives of the humble folk most affected into its modus operandi.

The task of administering the scheme was originally given to the most senior black civil servant working in the Home Office, Alexandra Ankrah. Ankrah resigned earlier in 2020, complaining that a ‘toxic atmosphere’ prevailed in the unit doing this work. According to the Guardian, she had identified failings with the way the compensation scheme was working and had recommended changes. She cited the sluggishness of getting money to people, and the unwillingness on the part of staff “to provide information and guidance that ordinary people can understand” as being among the main reasons for her disquiet.

Officials had originally expected to pay out between £200m and £570m in compensation, such was the degree of harm that had been inflicted on the people eligible for payouts. But after a full 18 months, only £1.6m had been paid out to 196 people. The scandal had managed to trap a cohort of now elderly individuals who had been subjected to tremendous stress arising from the allegation that they were not lawfully resident. The scheme’s staff appear to be indifferent to the frail health of many applicants and the extent of foot dragging has meant that at least nine people have died without receiving an offer of compensation.

Evictions and deportations

Back in July, in response to her own department’s Learned Lessons review, the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that ‘compassion’ was to be the watchword from now on, with further reforms bringing ‘diversity’ into the work of immigration management. Yet just weeks later the mistakes of the hostile environment were being replicated in measures that required the eviction from housing of people subject to negative asylum decisions. Refugee campaigners described this as recklessly pushing vulnerable people into homelessness and destitution during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

On another front, the deportation of non-citizen offenders, many of whom came into the country as children, has been stepped up through specially chartered flights to the Caribbean, which seems to be an effort to beat difficulties that are expected to arise for peremptory expulsions now that the UK is finally out of the EU.

Many organisations working to support the welfare of migrant and refugee people are at their wits’ end when it comes to dealing with a government department that refuses to learn from its past failings. For these critics, institutional racism is now so deeply embedded in the Home Office that the only remedy can be a decisive end to its role in anything connected to migration and refugee policy.

Exactly where the proper place within government would be for the administration of policies which would work with compassion to get social justice into how the movement of people across frontiers and borders is managed is a discussion we urgently need to get started.

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