Author: Satbir Singh
Tasfin came to the UK in 1962 from Bangladesh, or what was then called East Pakistan. He was 19 years old. Orphaned during the brutal partition of India by the departing British, he had been working since the age of 12 for an American company in the port city of Chittagong. He made tea, unloaded containers, repaired cars and swept floors. And he eventually concluded that the only way to ensure a better life for himself was to scrape together the fare for a one-way ride to the Tilbury Docks. As a citizen of the Commonwealth, he enjoyed this right to move to the United Kingdom, as did all those now fondly referred to as the “Windrush generation”.
Now 84, Tasfin lives in Tooting, south London, with the eldest of his three sons, surrounded by grandchildren, the youngest of whom will be sitting her GCSEs in a few months’ time. After working for over 40 years on the London Underground, he retired a few months after his wife passed away and struggles with chronic arthritis.
We meet by chance on the No 44 bus and Tasfin, it turns out, is on his way to apply for his first passport. He proudly tells me, “Her Majesty’s Government wrote me a letter to say that I am now a British citizen.”
As with so many others, Tasfin’s journey to this point had started with a routine interaction with the state turning his entire life upside down. In this case it was a visit to an outpatient NHS service in late 2017, where he was asked to prove his immigration status. Having never had the means to travel, Tasfin had never possessed a passport. “My wife was better with paperwork but she had already quit and gone upstairs.” So this elderly man was swallowed whole by the hostile environment.
With no access to healthcare, Tasfin had no way of knowing that the pain in his legs was because of easily treatable blood clots, and he slowly stopped trying to walk at all. By last April there were letters arriving from the Home Office, threatening removal. “I didn’t leave my house or even open the curtains, I was so scared that they would snatch me and take me away”.
Tasfin tells me that he had read about the Windrush scandal in his newspaper and seen it on TV. But “I didn’t come from the Caribbean so I didn’t think it was the same thing”, says Tasfin. It was months before a lawyer attending his mosque heard about Tasfin’s problems and helped him call the Windrush Taskforce. “Alhamdulillah [praise be to God] he said something or I might not be here.”
In just a few words, Tasfin sums up the arbitrary cruelty of the government’s hostile environment policy and the dangers of thinking its impacts have been confined to the Windrush generation or to the Caribbean community. We all now live under a system of Orwellian immigration laws that find people of colour guilty until they can prove their innocence. It denies them healthcare, housing and the right to work unless they can produce the right documentation; and if they cannot, it ties them up in bureaucracy and threatens them with removal. It forces police officers to report victims of sexual violence to the Home Office if they cannot demonstrate their right to remain.
In the absence of adequate legal aid, the fate of people like Tasfin is left entirely to chance – their very survival depending on the goodwill of a lawyer who happened to overhear a worrying story, or on the capacity of a local charity to run a legal advice surgery in the right place at the right time. And after another year in which advice organisations have been stretched by growing need and shrinking resources, it is hard not to be worried about the number of people out there who are still struggling on their own. People who may be sitting next to us on the bus or living next door. Neighbours and friends quietly struggling with the daily humiliation of having to beg for their most basic rights.
After Brexit, these rules will apply equally to European nationals here in the UK. The recent immigration white paper confirms that there will be no significant effort to make the system fairer, more transparent or less dangerous. And analysis of the government’s “settled status” scheme suggests that hundreds of thousands will be left without documentation, just as the Windrush generation were when the right to free movement from the Commonwealth came to an end. The pressure on community and legal advice organisations will likely be unprecedented; and unless we can dismantle the hostile environment, we will see a crisis that will likely dwarf even Windrush in its scale.
Before Tasfin steps off the bus, he shows me the letter from the Home Office confirming his status in the UK. “This. Everything, all this suffering, just for this.” Half a century in this country and it’s a few words on official letterhead that determine whether a grandfather can live or die with dignity. I am filled with respect and love for this man I barely know, but it’s overshadowed by a sense of guilt and urgency. This year our organisation helped thousands of people just like Tasfin, but in the space of a short bus ride, I’m reminded of the thousands more out there who we couldn’t reach.
• Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a beneficiary of the 2018 Guardian and Observer appeal
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