When Esme Beaker was barred from boarding a plane to London and forced to allow her 11-year-old grandson to travel on alone from the US it was just the latest episode in the nightmare engulfing her life.
Although she had lived and worked in the UK since arriving in the UK in 1960 from Jamaica as a teenager, the Home Office said it had no record of her and refused to replace the British passport she had lost.
“That meant I could not attend her funeral in New York so I had no choice but to travel on a Jamaican passport to see at least where she was buried. So there I was stuck on the tarmac and it was only with the intervention of my solicitors that I finally got home to Britain two weeks later.”
The 75-year-old is among the thousands of ‘Windrush children’ whose lives have been devastated by wrongly being classified as illegal immigrants amid the government’s so-called hostile immigration environment, a scandal that saw Amber Rudd resign as home secretary in April.
Her case is now one of 30 taken up by human rights lawyers Leigh Day, which is fighting for victims to be properly compensated for their ordeal.
“We have sent the Home Office a letter setting out the legal case for compensation. Our primary focus is to work with them so that people are adequately compensated,” said Leigh Day’s Jamie Beagent.
“It is difficult to a put a quantifiable sum on the fear and distress that has been caused by the hostile immigration environment. Direct pecuniary losses will also vary widely. People have had to instruct lawyers, they have been denied access to health care, they have lost their jobs, some of them highly paid. We could be talking about tens of thousands and possibly six figure sums.”
Although the Windrush children are casualties of strict new immigration rules brought in by Theresa May after she became home secretary in 2010 requiring employers, health services and landlords to demand evidence of people’s immigration status, many fell foul of the Home Office years earlier.
“The hostility and racism was always there,” said Ms Beaker, a retired social sciences lecturer living in east London. “Since 2001 the Home Office has been telling me I am not a British citizen and denied me a British passport. They have cast me out and made my life unbearable.”
Lack of proper documentation meant that when she was diagnosed with cancer she was not automatically entitled to free NHS care. “There are kind doctors out there and they treated me at their discretion. But when it came to benefits I was told I was not entitled to any,” she said. Unable to pay her rent, she lost her home and had to live with family.
After battling with the authorities, her Jamaican passport was finally stamped ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in 2008. But when she returned from a visit to Jamaica following her sister’s death in 2015, she was stopped at Gatwick Airport and questioned for two hours.
“I had worked here all my life and brought up my three children here, yet once again I was being treated as a non-person, an illegal immigrant.”
Not all of Leigh Day’s clients hail from the Caribbean but were caught up in the same Windrush net. Mohamed Hirsy, 75, came here on a British passport from Kenya in 1965 and worked as a housing officer for Tower Hamlets in London for 25 years. His troubles began when he took up a post with a housing association in 2005 and was asked for proof of his right to be in the UK. Having lost his original passport he applied for a replacement but was told he was not entitled to one despite a paper trail going back decades. As a result he lost his job and, unable to work or claim benefits, he fell into mortgage arrears.
He said: “I lived in constant fear of either losing my home and being deported, or both. The pressure was immense.”
After getting in touch with the Home Office’s recently set up Commonwealth task force – one of 13,000 callers, according to recent figures – he has been granted a biometric residence permit.
“It was such a huge relief when it came in the post but I am angry that I have been so badly let down by the system.”
Mr Beagent believes that xenophobia rather than direct racial discrimination was the real driving force behind the scandal: “The narrative is that we are drowning in immigrants. The Home Office’s starting point for any immigration matter is disbelief. You have to prove your case by presenting documents. When you do you are told more evidence is required. These administrative hurdles are all seated in a culture of disbelief and hostile attitude.”
Although there is distrust of the government among the Windrush community, he is optimistic that the compensation claims will be dealt with sympathetically, given the way in which it has already acted in the face of public outrage.
“It is most unprecedented to see the government apologise in the way it has,” he said. “It has made such a clear statement of apology and admission of wrong. It is an amazing turn of events.”
He added: “By its own standards, the government has moved quickly and the QC it has appointed to advise it on how to compensate people is of the Windrush generation so has a natural empathy with those affected. I would hope a compensation scheme will be up and running by the end of the year.”