The Hostile Environment – Olusoga Uncovers a Policy Seventy Years in the Making

If you are a fan of historian David Olusoga’s work, you will have watched the documentary The Unwanted Secret Windrush Files which aired on BBC 1 on 24th June. The film was previewed at the Southbank Centre the night before in front of a packed auditorium. Frank discussions were held after the screening between Olusoga himself, Amelia Gentleman, the journalist who broke the story and publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove who acted as the moderator.

As always, Olusoga’s film was thoroughly researched bringing new light to the story behind the introduction of a ‘hostile environment’ for black immigrants in the UK. The long standing policy eventually led to the disastrous deportations of many of the Windrush generation who got caught up in the feverish anti-immigrant rhetoric that had taken 70 years in the making.

It was since Clement Atlee’s post war administration of 1945 that successive governments from both sides of the political persuasion attempted to deny Black immigrants from Commonwealth countries the right to reside and work in Britain through cleverly crafted legislation. It is clear now that the directive to create a hostile environment didn’t come from nowhere. Olusoga’s ‘secret files’ prove without doubt the deliberate nature of the policy to bar immigration from African, Asian and Caribbean countries.

It was not, either, that Britain didn’t recognise the need for more labour to reconstruct the country after the post war era.  Documents revealed by Olusoga show how the authorities went to extra lengths to woo migrants from European countries, even former German citizens whom they had fought against in the war rather than former Black subjects of the British crown whom they fought alongside.

This goes to the heart of the problem which dispels the first myth that the arrival of the Windrush vessel was welcomed by the governing classes. On the contrary the Atlee government on hearing about the imminent arrival of a boat load of black people quickly scrambled to find ‘opportunities’ in East African colonies that would render them peanut pickers in faraway plantations.

As Olusoga reiterates; successive governments from Atlee’s administration to the now infamous Theresa May policy underlined efforts to legitimise the notion that Britishness was based on colour and not shared values.

The programme was interlaced with poignant interviews from several victims of the scandal. With grace and humour they described their ordeal of being forced to prove their citizenship after having worked and paid taxes in this country for the better half of 50 years. It is notable that the same policy was not applied to white migrants from Australia, Canada and former such colonies.

One interviewee laughed over the fact that he had to find a receipt from the 1970s which would have proved his right to remain in this country.

All the way through the implication that African and Caribbean communities were attracted to these shores because of a generous welfare state or were more prone to criminal behaviour was never far away from the narrative that fuelled the unjust legislation. As Olusoga pointed out, ‘history is merely repeating itself.’

Yet ultimately, the last word remains with the victors of the scandal who had their deportations revoked by the present government. Though many are still waiting for compensation and redress, one citizen, when asked whether he felt British after the way he had been treated, replied that he felt even more British because he said ‘they tried to get rid of me several times and they couldn’t.’

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