In the context of widespread public outcry and under pressure from Commonwealth leaders, Theresa May has finally apologised for causing “anxiety” to the Windrush generation and stated that she “values” their contribution. The apology is, of course, too little too late for many people whose lives have already been irreversibly impacted. The events and the debate around them have partly succeeded in demonstrating the brutality of the Home Office’s “Hostile Environment” policy towards migrants. It was revealed that the Windrush generation had their documents deliberately destroyed by the Home Office, and they have been treated with extraordinary contempt. Something of the callous indifference of the Hostile Environment has been made clear to the public at large.
Many of the arguments about the “inhumanity” and “incompetence” of the Home Office are factually correct and necessary under the circumstances. For the Windrush generation themselves, it makes sense to demand recognition of the citizenship they held on arrival. Since arriving in the UK they have struggled against stark and violent racism, and have often represented an anti-racist vanguard in British society, heavily influencing the British labour movement. Their experiences trace one of the defining struggles against racism of the twentieth century and it is significant that the Home Office’s actions have been seen as a “betrayal” rather than business as normal. We must support the Windrush generation as they fight back against this latest racist attack on their lives and livelihoods, and we cannot judge individuals for articulating their demands in whichever way they believe has the greatest chance of success.
However, those of us concerned with building migrant solidarity should be wary of some worrying slippages in the way this case has been spoken about. Arguments about the supposed incompetence of the Home Office are contradicted by the fact that these injustices are systemic and deliberate. More importantly, using arguments about citizenship, contributions to the economy through taxes, or having “laid down roots” in this country always veers uncomfortably close to reinforcing a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” migrants. This dichotomy ultimately undermines the potential for solidarity with all migrants as it implicitly relies on the notion of a perfect migrant who is “deserving” of staying in the UK, to the exclusion of others.
Liberal discourse on migration has often reinforced the idea of the “deserving migrant” in various ways. Some sections of the media have been primarily preoccupied with the possibility that what is currently happening to the Windrush generation could happen to (white) Europeans after Brexit (although their concern rarely seems to extend to working-class Eastern Europeans). The goalpost for what constitutes a “deserving” migrant will shift with the political debates; it might be the refugees fleeing war (if only particular wars), LGBT migrants fleeing persecution (with the subtext that we should pity them as they come from “backwards countries”, and the implicit argument that any other migrants from these countries are a danger to be kept out), children (who are morally more “pure” than adult migrants since they did not choose to come here themselves), the aforementioned white Western Europeans or any other number of permutations. Ultimately, all of these seemingly pro-migrant arguments create a standard – changeable with the political mood and interests of the ruling class – that the majority of migrants will always fall short of. Hence, it rationalises their exclusion from solidarity, protection and support.
The ongoing “Brexit debate” reveals this tension in perhaps the clearest way. Before the referendum, there was a sudden panic at the prospect that even nice, white and employed Europeans might potentially face state persecution as a result of their migration status. Little was said by either the Remain or the Leave campaigns about the ongoing and sustained intimidation and violence perpetrated against non-white and non-European migrants through immigration raids, detention and deportations. These policies and practices started well before Brexit and are still ongoing, with thousands of people deported each year. With the introduction of charges for healthcare, tenancy and employment checks that criminalise migrants living and supporting themselves if they do not have the right papers, as well as a sustained media assault that demonises migrants (particularly Muslims), we have a situation in which huge numbers of people are living under increasingly brutal state oppression.
These are racist measures and they are measures intended to divide; to divide migrants from non-migrants and to divide different groups of migrants from each other. As such, we need to be very clear: denial of healthcare is not worse if it happens to a UK citizen than to a non-citizen. Deportations are never just or acceptable, regardless of whether the person deported had the “right” or “wrong” papers. European migrants do not have any more of an innate right to be here than those from other parts of the world. Solidarity with migrants means being in solidarity with unemployed migrants who are not “contributing to the British economy” or “paying their taxes”; with the single men in the Calais camps, not just the women and children; with those who entered the UK “illegally”; with so-called “economic migrants”; with those who are not “fit and healthy”; with those who have only been here for a short time, and with the Windrush generation who have lived here for decades. Being a “migrant” is not an insult, and basic solidarity with migrants needs to be continually demonstrated by explicit reinforcement of the principle that not being a citizen does not mean that state violence is somehow less abhorrent if it is perpetrated against you. Being “illegal” or a “non-citizen” does not make migrants less deserving of solidarity and support.
The reduction of conversations over the treatment of Windrush migrants to technicalities of citizenship also represents a considerable historical amnesia. In a week where controversy over the BBC’s broadcasting of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech reminds us of the days of the National Front, we should remember that it was popular anti-racist struggle and solidarity, not appeals to bourgeois legality, which was and remains decisive in determining the position of the Windrush generation and those who followed in their wake.
Our goal as anti-racists should always be to undermine the moral charge of categories such as “citizen” and “migrant”. Solidarity with migrants needs to be continually demonstrated by explicit reinforcement of the principle that no-one should suffer state violence. Insisting that what the Windrush generation have been put through should not happen to anyone is not a criticism of the Windrush generation and the way they are speaking about their experiences. It is, however, intended to be a reminder that we do not get to choose the political terrain upon which we conduct our debates, and that we need to be careful how we articulate our statements of solidarity. It is a question of resisting selective solidarity and standing against the violence of borders in all forms.