On 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, with 492 passengers on board. Most of the passengers were from the Caribbean islands that formed part of the Commonwealth and had been invited over by the British Government to help with the post-war reconstruction and workforce shortages.

On board were ex-servicemen who had fought for Britain during World War 2 and were returning to jobs in the Royal Air Force. Others had come to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Some thought they would only stay for a short while, make some money and then return home.

This was a defining moment and marked the beginning of Caribbean migration to Britain.

Under the British Nationality Act of 1948, all migrants who arrived from Commonwealth countries were given British citizenship and the right to work and settle in Britain. They were also given the right to bring their families with them. This open invitation lasted until 1971 when the Immigration Act was changed.1 During that time, thousands of Caribbean Commonwealth citizens made the journey over. Children were reunited with their parents and jobs filled in the UK’s public services. An entire generation of Britons with Caribbean heritage now existed, later to become known as the Windrush generation. 

‘When are you going back?’

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush and celebrations took place all over the UK in recognition of the contributions African-Caribbean people have made to British society and acknowledgement of the difficulties they had overcome to make this country their home. The NHS was founded just two weeks after the Windrush arrived, and a big part of the NHS 70th anniversary celebrations was an appreciation of the contribution of the Windrush generation, which played a central part from its very beginning in 1948.2

More soberingly, it was also the 50th anniversary of Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he criticised mass immigration into the UK, in particular from the Caribbean Commonwealth countries.3 Shadow Defence Secretary at that time, Powell quoted with approval one of his constituents telling him that the black man would have the ‘whip hand’ over the white man in Britain in 15 or 20 years’ time if something were not done to curb immigration. Ironically, only a few years earlier, when he was Health Secretary, Powell had been active in recruiting Caribbean nurses to come to the UK to fill vacant positions in the NHS. Yet, five years later, he was urging the Government to implement a repatriation policy, and send them all back home to their countries of origin.4

It is a bitter irony that, in this anniversary year, the Conservative Government has been revealed to be trying to do what Enoch Powell was demanding all those years ago.

It was not until this year that the media, led by the Guardian, began highlighting case after case of individuals from the Windrush generation being deemed by the Home Office to be illegal immigrants. Some were deported; others were threatened with deportation and detained in immigration removal centres.5 People who had gone abroad were denied re-entry into the UK, and some were refused public services, such as housing, welfare benefits and even essential NHS treatment. One person, who had lived in the UK for more than 50 years, reportedly died because of the distress of trying to prove that they were in the UK legally.6

The incidents dated back over several years, driven by the Conservative Government’s ‘Hostile Environment Policy’, introduced in 2013, that actively sought out people deemed to have no right to live here in order to bring down the immigration statistics. Many Windrush victims were left more or less destitute, simply because they had never applied formally for British citizenship or passports and did not know they had to. This was made even more problematic as the Home Office did not keep any records and did not issue people with any paperwork when they arrived.7

On the day the Empire Windrush docked, the front page of Evening Standard headlined ‘Welcome Home! Evening Standard plane greets the 400 sons of the Empire’.8 This picture of a warm welcome was, sadly, untrue; there are copious accounts from passengers who were interviewed in later years to confirm this:

‘But the only thing after the war finish and people see us, the first thing they’re asking you, “When are you going back to your own country?”’9 ‘They tell you it is the ‘mother country’, you’re welcome, you all British. When you come here you realise you’re a foreigner and that’s all there is to it.’10

It became clear that they would not be allowed to live in peace. In the decades that followed, they faced extreme rejection, including racism and abuse, both verbal and physical, discrimination in employment and housing, and being barred from entering certain establishments because of the colour of their skin.11

The Windrush generation was seen as belonging in the British Empire, but not Britain.

Resilience or silent suffering?

It is a widely documented fact that the black community does not access talking therapies as much as the majority white population. For decades, this has been an area of concern for the Department of Health, the Government and the mental health, counselling and psychotherapy professions. The impact on the community has been severe, with black people much more likely to be compulsorily admitted to psychiatric hospitals and treated coercively, and much less likely to be offered or to access talking therapies. It has been widely accepted for many years that institutional racism and racial inequalities are prevalent throughout the NHS, and even more predominant within mental health services.12

A contributing factor, it has been argued, is that the counselling and psychotherapy profession itself has neglected to incorporate race, culture and ethnicity into its main theories and practices, and so failed to meet the needs of the culturally different.13

David Weaver, BACP President, spoke only recently at a Windrush Legal Strategy Conference about the long-standing ‘cultural dissonance’ between the profession and the black community.

The views and voices of this generation are noticeably absent from the research literature. Rarely, if ever, are their views sought. It is typical of attitudes to the older generation, but much more so because they are black. I undertook a small-scale piece of qualitative research for my master’s degree in counselling and psychotherapy, which was published in Therapy Today.14 I interviewed four women to attempt to gauge what the barriers were that prevented older African-Caribbean women from seeking support for their mental health needs. The participants were all part of the Windrush generation and migrated from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1960s. Asked what stopped them accessing help, one of the participants, Carol, spoke for the thousands of hard-working, self-reliant women like her: ‘...when black people came here, they took what jobs they could, did a lot of menial jobs. Life was not easy – full stop… That was a real test – trying to survive and cope and they came through all that and they, the majority of them, managed to get a roof over their heads, probably bring children over from the West Indies… now they gonna look in your face and tell you that they don’t want no counselling because they have gone through all that without any help.’

Bernice spoke of the early days when she first came to the UK: ‘I used to cry when I first came here. I used to cry a lot, as I left my children behind. One day, that time I could get on my knees, and I prayed to the almighty God. I say, “Father God, I am so tired of crying. I keep crying all the time and I would really like to stop…”’

What still keeps many of this generation going is their religion and belief in God. For these four women, their faith was an important source of comfort and support: you talked to God or the pastor, not to other people. Bernice described how her parents taught her to keep her problems to herself and ‘talk to Almighty God about it’. Dawn had been taught by her mother: ‘You don’t talk your business to people…it’s none of their business.’ It was, she said, a deep-rooted cultural norm among African-Caribbean women.

Tellingly, that same cultural norm of silent resilience born of necessity became clear when the voices of victims of the recent Windrush scandal finally began to be heard. One victim stated: ‘I had no idea there were all these people like me suffering in silence. I don’t know why none of them spoke up. But for me it was shame. I was so embarrassed. I only told my children, not my friends… I felt ashamed to be in my 60s and going through something like this. That I was almost evicted from the home I’ve lived in for 31 years. That’s the thing with black Britons of my generation. We don’t like people to know when anything is wrong. Inside you are crying, but outside you won’t show it.’15

It was as if the publicity allowed the victims to speak out and be heard. Slowly, they started to come forward and share their feelings about all that they had been through: ‘I felt like I didn’t exist. I wondered what was going to happen to me. All I did was cry, thinking of my daughter and granddaughter; thinking that I wasn’t going to see them again… I couldn’t eat or sleep; still now I can’t eat and sleep properly.’16 ‘My whole life sunk down to my feet.’17 ‘I can’t tell you how angry and bitter it makes me feel. I’ve worked hard all my life, I’ve paid into the system… They’ve got all my documents. What more do they want?... How do they expect me to live? How am I expected to eat or dress myself?’18 ‘I’ve got no money. Since I stopped work when I got ill I’ve been living from day to day’;19 ‘I’ve been here for almost 50 years, I’ve worked night and day, I’ve paid into the kitty – but now no one wants to help me.’20

A call to action

We still don’t know how many people are affected.21 What, as a profession, are we doing to support them? We can all recognise the themes of trauma, shame, rejection, loss of home, family, jobs, health, security, community and belonging. BACP sees this as a significant issue of social justice. Jeremy Bacon, BACP Older People Lead, told me: ‘BACP’s strategic focus on older people is rooted in a drive for social justice. For those caught up in the Windrush scandal, having NHS treatment denied, their legal statuses questioned, or facing the threat of deportation will undoubtedly increase risk of short- and long-term emotional and psychological problems. Among the reparative response to the victims of Windrush there should be the offer of easily accessible, culturally sensitive counselling services that restore their sense of value and identity.’

We and our professional organisations should do everything we can to reach out to this under-represented group who have been victims of injustice by the UK immigration system. We all subscribe to the notion that counselling changes lives. If we believe that, then we must also believe that black lives matter as well.

Helen George MA, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred) is a counsellor/psychotherapist working in the NHS in an IAPT service. She is also founder of BME Voices Talk Mental Health, a new platform created for black and minority ethnic therapists of all disciplines to share good practice and research, collaborate and engage with BME communities. www.bmevoices.co.uk


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2. NHS 70. Windrush 70. [Blog.] bit.ly/2w4ILDR
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5. Gentleman A. The week that took Windrush from low-profile investigation to national scandal. [Online.] Guardian; 20 April 2018. bit.ly/2MHFCkg
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8. British Library. Learning timeline. www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/large107829.html
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11. Woods R. England in 1966: racism and ignorance in the Midlands. BBC News; 1 June 2016.
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13. McKenzie-Mavinga I. Black issues in the therapeutic process. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan; 2009.
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15. Griffith J. I lived in fear of deportation, Mr Javid. What price my years of fear and shame? [Online.] Opinion. Guardian; 11 May 2018. bit.ly/2P2b3Yd
16. Gentleman A. ‘I can’t eat or sleep’: the woman threatened with deportation after 50 years in Britain. [Online.] Guardian; 28 November 2017. bit.ly/2BvC9jG
17. BBC News. Windrush generation: who are they and why are they facing problems? [Online.] BBC News; 18 April 2018. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43782241
18. Gentleman A. The children of Windrush: ‘I’m here legally, but they’re asking me to prove I’m British’. [Online.] Guardian; 15 April 2018. bit.ly/2IZQPua
19. Gentleman A. Londoner denied NHS cancer care: ‘It’s like I’m being left to die’. [Online.] Guardian; 10 March 2018. bit.ly/2FqXaS6
20. Gentleman A. ‘I’ve been here for 50 years’: the scandal of the former Commonwealth citizens threatened with deportation. [Online.] Guardian; 21 February 2018. bit.ly/2P5yy2v
21. Home Office. Windrush: fact sheet. [Blog.] Home Office; 21 June 2018.
(All websites accessed July 2018.)