Windrush generation tell of holidays that led to exile and heartbreak

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When Leighton Joseph Robinson, 58, went to Jamaica for his 50th birthday, it was the first time he had been back to the Caribbean since arriving in Britain aged six. But what was supposed to be a once in a lifetime holiday turned into a nightmare when, on his way home, he was stopped at the airport and told that he could not return home to Northampton on the Jamaican passport he had brought for the trip.

Robinson was told that he did not have the correct paperwork to get into the UK, even though he had lived, worked and paid taxes there his whole life.

The grandfather of three was forced to say goodbye to his relatives at the departure gate. “I felt like someone had just punched me in the head. ‘What do you mean, I cannot come back?’ I thought. The next day it really hit me that I was not with my family,” he says.

He says he ended up staying in Jamaica for 21 months, stranded and living in one-room bedsits and cheap hostels.

“I was shocked for ages and I went to the British high commission in Kingston, Jamaica, and they said: ‘You have to prove you are British,’ so I sent them my national insurance number, school reports etc. They said it was not good enough.”

What is the Windrush deportation crisis?

Windrush generation tell of holidays that led to exile and heartbreak

Who are the Windrush generation?

They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.

What is happening to them?

An estimated 50,000 people face the risk of deportation if they never formalised their residency status and do not have the required documentation to prove it.

Why is this happening now?

It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.

Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?

Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.

What is the government doing to resolve the problem?

On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a new Home Office team dedicated to ensuring that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.

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The hardest part of it all, Robinson says, was that he could not see his children. “What I missed most was my family. I have two daughters and three grandchildren … My family kept in regular contact and my sister even paid for one of my friends to come see me. It was hard.”

Robinson explains that he lived all over the place in Jamaica, supported financially by his sister, who spent more than £26,000 on legal fees and accommodation costs, he estimates. “This resulted in her business struggling and as it started to decline, the places I stayed at would have to get cheaper,” he says.

After several failed attempts to get help, Robinson’s sister came across a solicitor who managed to resolve the case quickly. “I was back in two weeks. It was Hilary Brown, a solicitor from Wales,” he says. “The British government accepted that the evidence was strong enough to show that I did live in Britain. But why was it not there in the first place? It was as if they wanted me to stay out there.”

But this was not the end of his troubles. Robinson’s problems worsened when he returned to the UK in 2011 and was told he owed £4,500 for unpaid rent and council tax. He was taken to court and evicted from his flat.

Since then, Robinson says he has been homeless and forced to sofa-surf. “I lost my house and I am still not settled. Right now, I am talking to you from a friend’s house. I come here some nights and then go somewhere else. All I ever wanted was my flat back and a little bit of an apology.”

He says he has not challenged what happened to him because he found the experience so draining. “I had no energy by the end of it all. I just thought, ‘I’ve had enough,’” he says.

His ordeal has left him feeling that politicians are not honest. “Theresa May must have known what was going on. She was the home secretary, so she must have known.”

What does he think of the Home Office’s promises to sort everything out? “I will believe it when I see it. They say things and then go back on their promise, but we will see. Hopefully, if they do sort it out, that will ease tension with people and bring happiness back into their lives.”

‘You can’t put a price on missing your mother’s funeral’

Junior Green.

Junior Green. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Junior Green, 61, has been in the UK for more than 60 years, since he was five months old, but after he went to Jamaica last year to visit his dying mother, he was refused readmission. He was eventually granted a temporary visa to re-enter the country, but the delay meant he missed his mother’s funeral, which he says sent him into a spiral of depression.

“I came over on my mum’s British passport, in 1958. I have always lived here. My education was in England, my grandchildren are in England,” says Green, who lives in Chesterfield.

He said he first went to Jamaica in 1993, when his mother and father chose to move back there. He had a Jamaican passport but was given a leave to remain stamp and has a letter to confirm that he was granted this.

Despite having the letter, he said the problems began when he lost the passport containing the stamp. Attempts to get his new Jamaican passport stamped with the indefinite leave to remain were rebuffed by the Home Office in 2009 and 2014, he says, because he was unable to furnish them with proof of 10 years of continuous residence, even though he had the 1993 letter.

The refusals deterred him from visiting his parents again, but when his mother fell ill in June last year, he felt he had to go to see her. She died on 11 July last year after he spent precious time by her side, and the family decided to have her funeral in the UK.

On 4 August, they were due to fly back to the UK, but, as Junior’s sister Doreen describes it, at the airport he was told words to the effect of: “You ain’t going anywhere today.”

The funeral took place on 24 August, but Junior was still stuck in Jamaica, despite paying $600 to apply for a visa and a further $300 to accelerate the process. He was alone, as the rest of his family had returned, and with little cash.

Of missing his mother’s funeral, he says: “You can’t put a price on that. All the pain and suffering and the cost. I was just in a room [in Jamaica], nowhere to go, just waiting for my visa.”

He did not manage to return to the UK until October, and even then, he says, he was granted the wrong type of visa, one that was for people returning after more than two years outside the country. Apart from those two visits to Jamaica, he says, he has never been out of the UK.

“I feel betrayed. Why would they just betray me for no reason?” he says. “I was a British citizen in the first place [as Jamaica was a British colony].”

The visa he was granted and returned on last year ran out on 31 March. His sister, who – like another brother – is not in the same position because she was born here, says Junior fears immigration officials “could be knocking on the door at any time”.

He had been working as a security guard and is quick to praise his former employer for keeping his job open while he was stuck in Jamaica. But he says that when he did manage to return, missing his mother’s funeral and the turmoil surrounding it meant he was too stressed and depressed to resume work.

Green has heard the pledges of action from Theresa May and the Home Office, but describes them as “empty promises”. He adds: “Actions speak louder than words. It’s their fault they don’t keep records.”

‘I have been hurt. It’s inhumane’

Kenneth Williams.

Kenneth Williams. Photograph: Victor De Jesus for the Guardian

Kenneth Williams, 58, says that it was snowing on the day he first arrived in Britain aged nine in 1969. The weather was something he wasn’t used to, having lived in the Caribbean before that. “I found it really nice,” he says. “But I never imagined everything that I would have to go through in Britain.”

Williams has spent years battling to prove his right to remain in the UK. His parents answered a call to come over to help rebuild Britain after the second world war. His dad was a carpenter and his mum a nurse.

“I was schooled here from age nine to 16 and worked as a teenager in Halifax at a packing company … I have always been in England,” he says.

Williams says that he came to Britain on his sibling’s passport, which meant that he had no documentation. He had no problems working in Britain, however, until three years ago.

“I had been working for the council for seven years, but through an agency. After seven years I wanted to be employed directly by them, but they instead said that I couldn’t work for them any more as they realised I didn’t have a British passport. I explained that I had been here since I was nine but they still refused,” he says.

Williams says he was put on suspension with full pay but then told he had to leave. He had just bought a house and had a mortgage to pay.

He could not access benefits through the jobcentre due to his status, and had to rely on family and friends for support. “I was told I could not sign on, but I said: ‘What can I do? I have a house to pay for. I have got kids going to school to pay for.’”

Williams says he was asked for evidence that he had been in Britain for a long time. “I couldn’t get school records as I went back to the school and they said: ‘We don’t keep records that long,”’ he says.

Williams spent years trying to sort out what had gone wrong before he was finally given a card confirming he had indefinite leave to remain in Britain last August. He says he has still been unable to get a British passport as it costs £2,000 to get citizenship, a fee he cannot afford.

“The whole experience has really affected me quite badly,” he says, adding that at times he felt suicidal. “I used to weigh 11 stone, now I weigh about eight and a half or nine stone.”

He adds: “Now I know I can get a few pounds into the house I feel a lot better … as long as I can go to work.”

Williams is another who is sceptical about Home Office promises to sort out the mistakes that led to him being wrongly labelled as an illegal immigrant. “I will have to wait and see, them saying, ‘We will do this and that.’ How can you believe them? I don’t know who to believe now.

“I have been hurt … Imagine having no income so that you cannot even feed your kids. It’s inhumane.”

‘She was looking through my five passports and she said there’s something missing’

Briggs Levi Maynard.

Briggs Levi Maynard. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Briggs Levi Maynard arrived in the UK by ship just before Christmas in 1957. Like many of his generation, he left Barbados for work, and had a job as a London bus conductor waiting for him. He worked for London Transport until 1973 and then for a bookmaker’s, where he became a branch manager until his retirement in 1993. He has received a state pension ever since.

Now aged 89, Maynard has always held on to his Barbadian citizenship and passport. He had always thought there there was no reason not to. He says: “I am from Barbados, I was born in the Commonwealth, I’m like an English citizen. It was never any bother and I thought I would live like that for life.”

Maynard had travelled back to Barbados using his Barbadian passport many times to visit family – he is the eldest of seven children – and had never had any immigration problems. However, in 2015, after returning from Barbados to Gatwick airport, he had his first issue. An immigration officer asked him to prove that he had UK residency.

“I wasn’t very well at the time, so I was on a passenger transporter. The woman [from immigration] asked me lots of questions: ‘How long have you been in this country? What month did you come here? Where did you work? How many jobs have you had?’” After the interview, Briggs was told that in future he should travel with all his Barbadian passports so that UK immigration officers would be able to check the stamps he had collected since he first arrived in the country.

In June 2017, Maynard was taken by his four children and granddaughter to Barbados to celebrate his birthday and Father’s Day. When saying goodbye to family at Bridgetown airport, he was told by a clerk at the check-in desk that there was a problem.

Maynard remembers: “She was looking through my five passports and she said to my daughter, ‘There’s something missing.’ She went away and when she came back, she said: ‘I’m afraid your father won’t be able to travel back to the UK.’”

“Then it hit me what was happening and I had to walk away. I could see my daughter talking to the woman and suddenly I started to cry. I was numb … I felt cold. If you had put a sword through me, you could not have got blood.”

Maynard’s daughter and granddaughter protested, but after numerous calls were made to UK immigration services over the next two hours, the final decision came back that Maynard did not have residency in the UK as no records of his status could be found.

A solution came via the check-in clerk who had first identified the problem. Her grandmother had experienced a similar situation. She informed them if they could buy a return ticket to Barbados, he would be allowed to go back to the UK. The family purchased the ticket at huge cost and he was allowed to return.

Now Maynard feels he should have applied for UK citizenship a long time ago, but it had never occurred to him that he would need to. He had been wanting to apply for citizenship since 2015, but the cost had prevented him.

On Wednesday, Maynard’s daughter, Samantha, phoned the hotline that the government have set up to try and resolve the issue. She was informed that she would have to get “a picture of his time in the UK”.

She says: “I was told that if I could produce as many documents as possible, my father may be eligible for free citizenship. They’re asking for employment records since when he arrived in 1957, but he has an insurance number and a state pension.”

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In response to the four men’s reports of their experiences, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has been clear: this is about people who have built their lives here in the UK and contributed so much to our society. We don’t want them to feel unwelcome or to be in any doubt about their right to remain here.

“The vast majority will already have documentation that proves their right to be here. For those that don’t, we have established a new dedicated team to quickly help them get the documentation they need and ensure this is resolved as soon as possible.

“We’ve also set up a webpage and have been speaking to charities, community groups and high commissioners to ensure advice and reassurance is provided to those affected.”