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Windrush: Legacy and lessons

HISTORY: The Empire SS Windrush

THIS YEAR marks the 71st anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex in June 1948. The arrival of hundreds of men, women and children who were British subjects from the Caribbean was greeted with much fanfare, with intense media interest.

As the acclaimed historian David Olusoga put it: “Both newsreels and newspapers portrayed the unexpected arrival of the West Indians as something of a novelty but were careful also to frame it within the bigger story of Britain’s slow journey towards economic recovery. The incessantly forward-looking positivity, which was an inescapable feature of news reportage during those less-cynical years, reflected the fact that maintaining public morale in 1948 was almost as essential as it had been during the war.

Thus, the new arrivals from the Windrush were depicted as plucky pioneers, victims of economic difficulties in their home islands, who had come to Britain to help the ‘mother country’ in its hour of need. Their misfortune was to be Britain’s gain, but the stress was firmly on the message that they had come here to work, as indeed they had.”

When people think about Windrush, it evokes a mixed range of emotions. For those who trace their being to those first assured steps into the “motherland” from the Caribbean, it is a celebration. It commemorates the arrival of the Windrush generations and their contribution to British society. From law and politics to culture including music and fashion, the indelible stamp of the generation and their progeny thrives today. Notting Hill Carnival stands as an international beacon celebrating Caribbean culture which derives its roots from the Windrush generation.

For many unfortunately, it evokes the furore following the Home Office’s failure to respectfully deal with the thousands of British subjects from the Caribbean arriving in the UK to work between 1948 to 1971. The Home Office’s inadequate record keeping, the independence of many of the Caribbean nations and the fact many thought that they continued to be British or had a right to remain here left thousands of first and second generation migrants in limbo.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary’s apology to Caribbean leaders whilst welcomed, was little comfort to those who lost jobs, homes, refused access to the NHS and, in the most extreme circumstances, were removed from the UK.

The issues faced by many is in stark contrast to how the Windrush generation were welcomed with fanfare. The changes in law from the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 to the Immigration Act 1971 and British Nationality Act 1981 severed many of the rights many Commonwealth and formerly British subjects could claim and sought to limit migration. They were the result of successive governments’ attempts to regulate an immigration system coming to grips with the end of empire and the post-War boom.

Windrush is an unfortunate example of the modern day “hostile” immigration environment the then Home Secretary Theresa May espoused.

Immigration law is subject to regular change and challenge in the courts and is ever changing. There has subsequently been regular changes in the rules to accommodate for the changing international climate; from the UK joining (and now leaving) the EEA to proving a right to work in the UK. The rules are generally amended to make the immigration and naturalisation processes more stringent.

With Brexit on the horizon, the government are set to make further grand changes. With regard to EEA nationals, once the UK leaves the European Union, it is envisioned that they will come under the same rules as non-EEA nationals, bringing to an end their free movement rights. Whilst there was talk by some during the Brexit campaign that rules should be relaxed for those from the Commonwealth, no formal policies have been proposed to date.

Migration to the UK has and continues to positively change the UK in the post-War era. From the nurses and doctors who staff the NHS, to those who grace popular culture through politics, sport, music and art, there is well-researched evidence to show that the UK is more productive and prosperous because of migration.

The lessons to be taken from the experience of the Windrush generation are simple: ensure that if you have the right to remain in the UK, make sure they are up to date and can be affirmed. If you have a claim to British nationality or can naturalise, do so. If you want to bring family to the UK or you have a business and need non-British talent, seek advice from reputable solicitors. Most of all, ensure we continue to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of migration.

Younes Ech-Chadli is one of the senior Solicitors at Reiss Edwards, one of the leading Immigration Solicitors firms in the UK.

They specialise in all types of private and business immigration as well as British citizenship applications. From their offices in central London, they represent clients from all over the world. If you require immigration advice, please contact them on 020 3744 2797 or send an email to

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