OPINION

Raising fences

The Windrush scandal marks another episode in Europe’s hardening politics on immigration

The scandal over the targeting of Britons of Caribbean origin is the latest twist in Europe’s recent politics over immigration, denting the continent’s image as being open, liberal and tolerant. The development comes at an awkward moment for London, which hopes to negotiate trade agreements with the countries of the British Commonwealth as it withdraws from the European Union. The Windrush generation, named after one of the many vessels that ferried some half a million people from the Caribbean islands to the U.K. in the late 1940s, has fallen victim to a ruthless policy that stipulates annual net immigration objectives. In its wake, people with cultural links to the region but who have lived all their lives in the U.K. are having to provide proof of residence for every year of their stay of up to 60-70 years. Inability to furnish such evidence has been met with job losses, threat of deportation, withdrawal of welfare benefits and even denial of critical medical care. For Britons of West Indies origin, the enormous emotional trauma of being regarded as aliens in a country that had invited their families to rebuild its economy must be hard enough to endure. Knowledge that they are at the receiving end of a policy devised by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was in charge of the Home Office only adds to their anxiety. In the event, Ms. May’s apology to the heads of Commonwealth governments over the mistreatment of people from Britain’s former colonies, and the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, brought too little comfort and too late. The Windrush saga is a reminder of the grotesque response from some central European governments in 2015 to prevent desperate Syrian migrants from entering their territory.

It is arguable whether the debate over the so-called illegal immigration across the industrialised world has focussed attention on systemic shortcomings and genuine violations. But surely, the controversy has typified the inability of governments to manage the political fallout from the current phase of globalisation and trade liberalisation. This is especially true of the EU, which has enshrined the free movement of people as a fundamental principle. Consequently, the 2004 expansion of the bloc into the countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union afforded nations in Western Europe cheap immigrant labour and compliance with better standards. But the process also gave a fillip to xenophobic parties of the extreme right across the region, threatening to halt immigration. Similarly, populist parties in Britain fuelled public anger over the dynamics of closer integration to target EU migrants during the 2016 referendum. The country’s two mainstream parties, although committed to remaining in the bloc, could hardly counter the trend. The lessons from the Windrush scandal are too fundamental to miss.

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