Richard Stewart is one of my constituents in Edmonton, where I am the member of parliament. He came to the UK from Jamaica in 1955, aged 10, and has lived here and paid taxes for over six decades. He even played for Middlesex county cricket club. However, in 2013 he was told by the Home Office that he had lost his British nationality when Jamaica declared independence in 1962. He has faced uncertainty over his legal status ever since.
Trevor Lloyd Johnson is another constituent. He arrived from Jamaica in 1971, almost four decades ago, aged 10. Trevor was threatened with the possibility of deportation, and his family has spent the last few months in a nightmare of Home Office bureaucracy, tracking down historical documents that he was never asked to hold on to in the first place. He had to do so to prove his right not to be deported.
Or take the cases, already documented, of my constituents Elwaldo Romeo, who came from Antigua 59 years ago, aged four, and Anthony Bryan, who was almost sent back to Jamaica after 52 years in the UK.
As of today, I am helping with 14 similar cases in my constituency. They include people originally from Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda – all Commonwealth countries. One even served in the British army. And these cases are all from Edmonton – they are probably the tip of an iceberg.
Countless people came to the UK from Commonwealth countries before 1973. They have a legal right to remain in the country. They worked hard. They paid taxes. They raised families. They made the UK the country it is today.
But little by little, through the Immigration Act 1971, the British Nationality Act 1981 and the Immigration Act 1988, the rights of Commonwealth citizens were aligned with those of other immigrants. Their special status was eroded.
In recent months, the Home Office seems to have stepped up its targeting of Commonwealth citizens. The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, has now admitted that the government has wrongly deported an unspecified number of the Windrush generation. Many others have been threatened with deportation unless they can produce nearly impossible sets of historical documents, covering every period of their lives in the UK over many decades. This leaves Theresa May with urgent questions to answer. This week of all weeks, she should be showing the Commonwealth that the UK puts people before free trade deals.
Rather than the Home Office itself keeping full records, the burden of proof of right to remain is shifted on to people, many of them vulnerable. This is extremely cruel and traumatising, since those affected run the risk of being separated from their families, or even being sent to countries they barely remember from childhood. Yesterday, in a new case, I was contacted by a man who arrived legally in 1970 from Jamaica, aged 11. Having lost his British passport and finding himself unable to meet new Home Office requirements to produce documents, he is now homeless, unemployed and distraught.
Back in June 2016, as the country voted in the EU referendum, certain politicians promised that life would get easier, not harder, for Commonwealth citizens wanting to come to the UK. Priti Patel even promised south Asian chefs could come to the UK and save the British curry house. Such promises are now revealed to have been shameful lies.
This week, however, May has a chance to change tack when she hosts leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries in London for the Commonwealth summit. Here is her opportunity to prove wrong those who say that the government, far from engaging with other countries in a spirit of equality, respect, and solidarity, is instead treating the Commonwealth as Empire 2.0.
Last week, I suggested that the role of the next head of the Commonwealth, rather than automatically going to Prince Charles, should be the person who best represents the important and progressive values that the association has pledged to uphold. I should have been more explicit that that decision is, of course, one for Commonwealth countries to make together – and not one for UK politicians.
But this point aside, May must now guarantee the status of Commonwealth nationals whose right to remain is supposed to be protected by law – by upholding the legal protections that previously existed, by ending the deportations, and by establishing an amnesty for anyone who arrived as a minor before 1973. She can stop the uncertainty that hangs over Richard, Trevor, Elwaldo, Anthony and many others – as tens of thousands of people have asked her to in just a few days, by signing a petition. .
Where some verification is needed, she must make sure that the Home Office has a practical, humane process and that the burden of proof is reasonable.
As my colleague Diane Abbott has said, the prime minister must now also urgently apologise, say how many Commonwealth citizens have been wrongly deported, and take immediate action to invite them back to the UK.
The author, Kate Osamor, is MP for Edmonton and shadow secretary of state for international development.
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