Author :May Bulman
British citizens of Indian, Ghanaian and Pakistani descent have been hit by the government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy – forcing the Home Office’s Windrush scandal taskforce to step in, The Independent can reveal.
In dozens of cases of alleged discrimination, people born in Commonwealth nations who have lived in the UK for decades have been left stranded abroad or threatened with deportation.
Charities said growing numbers from outside the Caribbean had approached them in need of support with immigration issues – and warned that the Windrush fiasco was the “tip of the iceberg”.
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who chairs the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group, said: “The treatment of these hard-working and British citizens is appalling. While thousands were asked to come to UK to help rebuild after the war, the Home Office is showing them nothing but disdain when they are heroes. I want this government to show respect for those who helped the UK off its knees and an amnesty for the Windrush generation, whichever country they are from.”
In one case, 73-year-old Indian grandmother Raj Rani Bhanote, who has lived in the UK for 55 years, was stranded in the US for four days after being blocked from boarding a plane back to Britain.
Ms Bhanote was questioned by British Airways check-in staff as she tried to board a flight from Arizona after visiting relatives. They claimed not to recognise the stamp on her Indian passport, designed to prove her right to remain in the UK.
Staff contacted the Home Office, which claimed she was not a British resident, and she was not allowed to board the aircraft. It took four days for the government’s Windrush taskforce to intervene so she could return home.
Ms Bhanote, who has three children and four grandchildren in the UK and worked as a post office assistant, told The Independent she felt “terrible”, adding: “I spoke to someone on the phone who refused to speak to my family and could not understand why they were behaving in such a disrespectful manner towards me.”
Her son, Arun Bhanote, has since written to his MP to request an investigation by the Home Office into what he described as “racist maladministration and xenophobic calamity”.
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said the case was a “disturbing but sadly all-too-common occurrence”.
“Cases like this show just how incredibly complicated, rigid and inhumane our immigration system has become,” he said.
“It’s a relief that the Windrush taskforce was able to help in this case, but it also shows the need for such remedies to be available to everybody who faces poor decision-making either at the Home Office or at the border.”
It comes as the government announced that a day celebrating the Windrush generation and their descendants was to be held annually, after it emerged a large number of British Caribbean nationals had been wrongly targeted by immigration officials in the UK.
But Alessandra Sciarra, from Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Centre, which supports migrants and refugees in south London, said they had seen at least a dozen cases of non-Caribbean Commonwealth citizens encountering similar issues in the past six months.
“They extend to people from different countries; it’s much more widespread. Windrush is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Ms Sciarra said one of their cases involved a 65-year-old Indian man who was born in Uganda and became a British protected person after fleeing persecution to the UK in 1972. Despite living here since, working and building a family, and never encountering any issues with his immigration status, he has recently been unable to find work due to issues with his documents.
“In the 46 years he has been living in the UK, he has integrated successfully into his community in Lewisham. His wife and adult children were all recognised as British citizens,” she said.
“But recently Mr Khan lost his job and began looking for employment again just prior to retirement. He faced numerous issues in this process, as many employers asked him for a proof of his right to reside and work in the country.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said one of her constituents, of Ghanaian descent who has been in Britain for over 50 years, had recently contacted her after had been threatened with deportation.
The Labour MP said: “The Windrush scandal goes way beyond the people that stepped off Empire Windrush or even all those from the Caribbean. Everyone from the Commonwealth who came here before 1973 could get caught up in the scandal, including deportation or detention.
“These are not isolated mistakes. They are a product of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, and Theresa May’s instruction to ‘deport first, appeal later’. Until these end, the scandal will not go away.”
The Home Office declined to disclose the exact number of non-Caribbean cases the taskforce was dealing with.
Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, said his office received on average three cases a week – or around 150 a year – from Indian nationals who have lived in the UK for more than a decade but are now denied their rights and in some cases threatened with deportation.
“It is not just Windrush cases,” he said. “There is a systemic failure on the part of the Home Office to deal with cases promptly. Delay is being used as a substitute for decision-making.
“There are a lot of people who are from India who have been in this country for 20 years, but are being held in a long queue being made to sign on and cannot work, but are actually entitled to stay here.
“As a result, people can stay for a very long time – as long as 20 years – and still not know precisely where they stand. Some inevitably get removed without anyone intervening. They live in a subculture of society and so are reluctant to come forward, but actually they do have the right to stay.”
Mr Vaz raised concerns that the Home Office had “diverted resources” from dealing with immigration cases from the Indian subcontinent in order to set up the Windrush taskforce.
Responding to the case of Ms Bhanote, a British Airways spokesperson said: “We are sorry to hear that the situation caused distress to our customer, but our colleagues in Phoenix and the UK Immigration Department were unable to confirm the validity of the travel documents held by the customer.
“We wanted to do everything possible to avoid our elderly customer making the nine-hour journey to London, to then be denied entry to the UK. So we rebooked her for travel a few days later, at which point the Home Office had provided an approval letter.”
The Home Office said Mr Bhanote had indefinite leave but that it had not been possible to determine her status in time for her to board the flight, and that it had worked closely with her son to determine her status.