LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday personally apologised to Caribbean leaders after her government threatened to deport people who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
At a meeting in Downing Street, May told representatives of the 12 Caribbean members of the Commonwealth that she took the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation “very seriously”.
“I want to apologise to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused,” she told the hastily-convened gathering.
She added: “I want to dispel any impression that my government is in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean.”
The government has prompted anger in Caribbean countries and at home for a clampdown on people who came to Britain between 1948, when the ship Windrush brought over the first group of West Indian immigrants, and the early 1970s.
They and their parents were invited to help rebuild Britain after World War II and — with many of them legally British, as they were born while their countries were still colonies — they were given indefinite leave to remain.
But those who failed to get their papers in order are now being treated as illegal, and at risk of deportation if they cannot provide evidence of every year they have been in Britain.
The row has been hugely embarrassing for the government, coinciding with a meeting of the 53 Commonwealth heads of government in London this week.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who earlier had a bilateral meeting with May, said he wanted a “speedy” response.
Those involved “have significantly contributed to the building and enrichment of the country. Now these persons are not able to claim their place as citizens”, he said.
Britain has written to each of the governments involved setting out how it intends to rectify the situation, notably by helping anyone affected to find the necessary paperwork to regularise their immigration status.
Holness said to May: “Prime minister, we welcome your response and we look forward to a speedy implementation of your proposed solution.
“It will lead to security, certainly for those who have been affected… It is time for the inclusive prosperity for which we stand as Commonwealth people.”
As he arrived for the meeting at Downing Street, Barbados ambassador Guy Hewitt said: “We are now in a discussion mode. The government has heard us.”
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne earlier said an apology from May “would be welcome” but he was “pleased” the government had stepped in.
“Many of these individuals do not have any connection with the country of their birth, would have lived in the UK their entire lives and worked very hard towards the advancement of the UK,” he said.
The issue has come to light following a clampdown on illegal immigration in recent years, requiring people to have documentation to work, rent a property or access benefits including healthcare.