Thursday, 22 February 2018

Britain, after all these years, still no country for old men who came as boys from the Commonwealth

Renford McIntyre is 64 years old and came to Britain from Jamaica fifty years ago, when he was 14 years old to join his mother, who had come over to become a nurse and his father, who was working as a crane driver. During that fifty years he didn't apply for British citizenship and has now been told, under the new draconian rules being applied to immigrants by the Home Office, that he isn't permitted to either work or is eligible for any government support. In fact, he is one of a growing band of largely invisible old men and women being told they are here illegally, who arrived in Britain as children from Commonwealth countries more than half a century ago and grew up here believing themselves to be British, only to discover recently, in a newly hardened immigration climate, that they are without the necessary papers and unable to prove their right to be here.

Renford said : "I’ve worked night and day, I’ve paid into the kitty – now no one wants to help me" he is referring to the fact that he has spent 35 years working and paying taxes as a tool setter, a delivery man in the meat industry and a National Health Service  driver." For the past year, he has been homeless, mostly sleeping on a sofa in an unheated industrial unit in Dudle. With no shower and nowhere to cook, he has to visit friends if he wants to eat hot food or wash. “It’s an appalling place to live. I’m a proud man; I’m embarrassed at my age to be living like this.” 

Back in 2014, a routine request from his last employers to update paperwork revealed that he didn’t have a passport and had never naturalised in Britain and as a consequence he was given the sack. Unable to find new work without papers, he became depressed and then homeless. Dudley council said he was not eligible for emergency housing because he had no right to be in the country and for the same reason he has been told he cannot sign on for state benefits.

With the support of the 'Refugee and Migrant Centre' in Wolverhampton, Renford gathered together paperwork showing 35 years of National Insurance contributions, but the Home Office has returned his application, requesting further evidence. “It makes me so angry. I’ve always worked. I’m a grafter. I can’t explain how bad it makes me feel.” 

Hubert Howard is 61 and travelled to Britain from Jamaica with his mother fifty-eight years ago, when he was three and has never lived anywhere else. His troubles began in 2005. His mother returned to Jamaica when she retired and Howard’s problems emerged when he wanted to visit her urgently when she became ill in that year. He applied for a passport, but his application was rejected because he had never naturalised. He hadn’t known that this was necessary and as a consequence his mother died without him seeing her in 2006.

His problems multiplied when Theresa May, as Home Secretary, announced the introduction of a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants in 2012. His employers at the time were the Peabody Trust and he recalled : “Peabody wanted to see the passport that I came in with, but my mum had taken it. Immigration was swooping all over the workplace. My employers were told by the Home Office that they had to get rid of me, otherwise they would get fined. All I needed was for the Home Office to say I was legal, but they said I was an overstayer and I didn’t have status. I tried to argue they were wrong. I left my job in 2012.”

Before he was fired Hubert had been a trusted and highly regarded employee who had been with them for a decade. He found that the years he spent working as a maintenance worker for British Rail, a plumber and later as a senior caretaker for the housing association, and, like Renford,  the tax he had paid over 35 years of working life, counted for nothing.

Older men and women like Renford and Hubert both have a legal right to stay in Britain because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already settled in Britain indefinite leave to remain, but they have struggled to gather enough documents to convince the Home Office that they arrived before the cut-off point.

As Hubert said : “They basically messed up my life. I had a steady job. They took my job away, stating quite clearly I had no status in this country. It broke my heart losing my job with Peabody. It was the best job I was ever in. When my mum passed away, I wasn’t there, and I still have not been at her graveside."

The Jamaican High Commissioner, Seth George Ramocan, said about others grappling with similar difficulties : “We don’t know how many there are, primarily because they are unaware of their status, or lack of it. Most believe that they are OK, that they are British. People are thrown into crisis when they find out. When you are in this situation you cannot get a job, health care, a place to live. It locks you out of the system.” 

Guy Hewitt, the Barbados High Commissioner in London said : “This is affecting people who came and gave a lifetime of service at a time when the UK was calling for workers and migrants, they came because they were encouraged to come here to help build post-World War II Britain and build it into the multicultural place that it is now. These are not people who tried to take advantage of the system. We need to find a compassionate mechanism for resolving this." 

He said it was difficult for vulnerable, elderly residents to bring together the required evidence : “It is really for many a very traumatic process. Often, the family and friends who could vouch for them are dead. It is a tragic situation because technically the Home Office has the right to deport anyone they have reason to believe has not been granted the right to reside here. Missions from the regions are working with the Home Office to avoid people being forcibly removed back to islands they don’t recognise.”

High Commissioners of Commonwealth countries are clearly concerned about the number of elderly former Commonwealth citizens, who have been here since childhood, facing similar problems and have called on the British Government to show "more compassion."

New evidence of harsh treatment by the Home Office emerged this week when officials said they “now accepted” that Anthony Bryan, 60, who has spent five weeks in immigration detention centres, was in fact “lawfully present in the UK”. Anthony, a grandfather who has lived in Britain for 52 years, has had two spells in detention and was booked last November on a flight to Jamaica, a country he left in 1965, when he was 8 years old and has not visited since. A decorator, he lost his job in 2015 because, like Hubert, he was unable to prove he was not an 'illegal worker', and struggled to convince the Home Office of his right to be Britain until the Guardian highlighted his case last year.

Anthony interviewed on Channel 4 News :

Anthony said he was relieved but angry at his treatment, which has left him heavily in debt because he was prevented from working for almost three years :

“I told them I was eight years old when I arrived here, but nobody believed; they told me I was an illegal immigrant and a criminal. They locked me up unlawfully. It was very stressful. It has been a nightmare.” 

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