In Brixton, immigrants are defending themselves against arbitrary action by the authorities. For suddenly they have to prove their residence status.
Jamaicans like Eileen Johnson and her children arrived on the ship "Windrush" as Britons Photo: imago/United Archives International
There’s always something going on in Brixton. On the way to the Black Cultural Institute (BCA) in the African-Caribbean neighborhood in south London, we pass a few Jehovah’s Witnesses and an Islamic preacher with a megaphone. "Solidarity with Windrush!" is finally written on the banner outside the gate of the black cultural center.
Advocates and volunteers have come to the BCA meeting hall to counsel members of the so-called "Windrush" generation – immigrants from Commonwealth countries who were deported before World War 1. January 1972 and were thus British citizens when they entered the country, but whose citizenship rights are not recognized today by many authorities for lack of documentation – there are no identity cards in Britain, and those who do not travel do not need passports.
It is believed that 57,000 of these immigrants are still not registered as British today because they didn’t have to bother – until they suddenly had to prove they were in the country before 1972, even for routine checkups at the local hospital. Those who can’t prove it face denial of subsidized housing or medical care, or even deportation. Dozens of cases of people, all men and women in their mid-50s and older, have been publicized by the Guardian.
The BCA auditorium is now jam-packed. To kick things off, an old news film from the late 1940s is shown: Caribbean men and women arriving in London in their best Sunday best, eagerly explaining how they want to help the motherland. Everyone here knows the reality that followed: "No blacks, Irish or dogs," many learned in their first days looking for a place to live.
Belonging is not a matter of course
In 1958, there were riots against the blacks in Notting Hill, to which they responded by founding the Notting Hill Carnival. The carnival has since gained worldwide fame, and the children of immigrants sit in parliaments and boardrooms. But even they couldn’t ensure that belonging was a given.
At the BCA, Sentina Bristol tells of her son Dexter, 57, from whom the Home Office had demanded detailed evidence that he had come to the country with his mother in 1968. His lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie recounts: the archival document search in Grenada and Great Britain, including tracking down old school reports, the issuance of a passport from Grenada in order to even be able to tackle the official run. On the very day McKenzie wrote to the family that everything would probably be all right, Dexter collapsed in the street and died; two days later came the letter with the positive message.
Since a state drop-in center was set up, it has received more than 6,000 calls
"We are British, we belong to this country, therefore straighten up and fight!" says old Sentina Bristol. Peter Herbert of the black lawyers’ lobby group sums up the situation: "The law was changed by Theresa May in 2014 without consultation or guarantees." Two days later, he responds to the taz when asked what he thinks of new Home Secretary Sajid Javid: "Sajid is just a brown face about a bigger problem."
Attorney McKenzie wants to give Javid time to make good on his promises, but stresses the problem is bigger than is generally known. The government has promised that all problems will be solved free of charge. Since a government helpline for affected people was set up on April 17, Sajid Javid says it has received more than 6,000 calls, including 2,500 from the Windrush generation. More than 100 cases have now been resolved, he said. But at the end of the counseling day in Brixton, McKenzie counts 42 new people asking for help.