On one hand, the term “Burning Work” speaks to the intergenerational struggle to end the "serious harm" caused by the ‘hostile environment’. A series of changes to immigration and nationality laws since 1948 which culminated in the 2018 Windrush Scandal. People from Commonwealth countries, a large proportion from the Caribbean, who had lived in the UK for fifty years or more, found themselves being told they had no legal status in the United Kingdom (UK). They were sacked from their jobs, denied benefits, NHS treatment, put in detention, with many individuals experiencing the terrifying ordeal of deportation. Additionally there have been discriminatory approaches to policing which disproportionately impact African Caribbean people and their descendants in the UK.
On another hand, it highlights the historic journey of organisations working to overcome institutional racism, in setting up law firms, Saturday schools, and businesses - finding community in the remixing of cultural scenes between sound system speaker boxes. When we spoke to Tom Nelson of West Indian Sports and Social Club (WISSC) he spoke about the formation of a key Black cultural institution within Manchester:
“The WISSC was created and developed by the Windrush generation, with at least two of its founding fathers sailing to the UK from the Caribbean, on the Empire Windrush ship itself. WISSC has been based at its current Moss Side site since 1976.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, much of this work has been redirected through online digital networks, connecting on a national and international scale to simultaneously respond to the disproportionate deaths of black and minority ethnic people in the UK while up to an estimated 50,000 people from the Windrush generation remain undocumented.
The analysis of how the hostile environment has restricted and damaged community cohesion for decades is repeatedly put to government through the Home Office’s Windrush Stakeholders Advisory Group (WSAG). This group includes members from cities across the UK including Anthony Brown from Windrush Defenders in Moss Side, Manchester; Glenda Andrews from Preston Windrush Generation and Descendants UK; and Jacqueline McKenzie of McKenzie, Beute and Pope immigration law firm who also run legal surgeries at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London.
In the wake of the 2018 Windrush Scandal, a group of volunteers in Manchester made up of lawyers, law students, entrepreneurs and community activists formed Windrush Defenders to support the Windrush generation and their descendants apply for documents to prove their legal status and claim compensation. They have worked to set up and conduct weekly pro bono community legal surgeries, from liaising with Home Office officials, calling family members in the Caribbean, to searching for medical records in a quest of supporting hundreds of people wanting to rectify their legal status. The group also held a series of community engagement events and meetings with local MPs, the Shadow Home Secretary, church leaders, local business owners, the Home Office Windrush Taskforce and members of the community.
“One of the biggest areas of this work which is not recognised is tending to the mental health and wellbeing of the people we see week in week out. It isn’t necessarily spoken, we see it in their body language and weary recount of the stories that got them to this dreadful place in their lives. We see grown men and women break down and cry. Black people are often used to being ‘copers’ but we do worry about how they’re doing it and getting by. It feels good when we are told that coming to our surgeries makes people feel the weight is being lifted. All of our clients say they really appreciate the environment and feel able to open up, as some have been to solicitors and the Citizens Advice for support but have not felt supported in the same way.” - Lorna Downer, co-founder of Windrush Defenders Legal C.I.C reflected.
Testimonies from the surgeries describing individual experiences lit up patterns of racial injustice across social, cultural and economic areas of life. It immediately became apparent that the needs of the Windrush generation go way beyond documenting their status; that longterm advocacy and support was needed to address the deep-rooted effects and damage to African and Caribbean communities caused by decades of hostile approaches to immigration control and enforcement by successive UK governments. Anthony Brown, a director and co-founder of Windrush Defenders Legal C.I.C. told us about one client who benefited from their support:
“Winston Dacares is 80 years old and came to the Windrush Defenders surgery for help as he was told he was not able to claim a benefit unless he could prove he was British. He had been in the country since 1961. I visited Winston at home and completed his Windrush scheme application. Eventually he was able to get his citizenship and claim benefits. It turned out he knew my father and told me stories about the early years of my dad in this country I never knew.”
The Windrush Defenders group are an integral part of the community, even more so after the compensation scheme was announced in April 2019, as more people sought help with their compensation claims. The group was later established as a Community Interest Company to give reassurance to the Windrush Generation that their support will continue. This also serves as an affirmation that they have an ally in challenging not only the racial injustices caused by the government’s hostile environment policy but also the intersecting inequalities repeatedly identified by government reviews such as The Macpherson Report , The Lammy Review, the 2017 Race Disparity Audit and the basis of the current Black Lives Matter movement.
The Burning Work of Windrush Defenders exposes limits in the current design of justice offered to the Windrush generation. Although the group began legal surgeries in 2018, their work is still largely funded by the founders and supported by volunteers, despite creating a key hub that contributes to many of the twelve thousand people residing in the UK who have obtained British citizenship or documentation confirming their legal status through the Windrush Scheme. This is in addition to building a network of key figures working on Windrush cases, whilst also investigating the terms on which over two thousand people within the UK and over eleven thousand from outside the UK have been refused documentation.
The Windrush Compensation Scheme was set up in April 2019 and has rightly been criticised for paying out £360k from a pot said to be two to five hundred million pounds. However, due to pressure from WSAG, the deadline for claiming compensation has recently been extended to 2nd April 2023. This is in addition to the government issuing a tender for claims assistance and announcing £500k funding to support community groups working with Windrush victims, although distribution details remain ambiguous.
The Windrush Lesson’s Learned Review (WLLR), conducted by Wendy Williams and published in March 2020, raises a series of political questions. The review highlights a culture of ignorance regarding the implications of former colonial relations, dehumanising approaches to border enforcement, and insufficient assessment on how immigration laws create structural racial discrimination. It concluded that the interpretation and enforcement of UK immigration laws have caused serious harm to Commonwealth citizens from former British colonies. In light of the criticisms, Wendy Williams asserts that the apology offered by the government will be measured by their forthcoming response due six months from the review’s publication.
Consequently, the conference on June 22nd explored how the WLLR intersects with the themes of the 2017 Race Disparity Audit which evidences racial disparities in criminal justice, health, education, community cohesion and work. The WLLR makes thirty recommendations for the Home Office to implement to ensure there can never be a repeat of the Scandal. The first recommendation of the review draws attention to the ‘serious harm’ inflicted on the African Caribbean Community as a whole. The question, therefore, arises: what is this ‘serious harm’, but more importantly, what can be done to repair the damage?
“The Windrush Scandal is far from over, in fact it is becoming more scandalous in that the efforts that have been made so far to right the wrongs to the Windrush Generation as they have put it have been patronising, inadequate and more words than action. Unless there are drastic changes the injustices will continue” - Leonie Brown, Co-Founder of Windrush Defenders Legal C.I.C
Inspired by the testimony of the Windrush Generation, the Burning Work digital forum on June 22nd 2020 aimed to coordinate research, community testimony and legal analysis towards transforming institutional structures which continue to reproduce racial disparities.
This first stage heard from key researchers and community figures to further examine the contours of this condition and identify ways of moving against existing legal frameworks and policy. The objective of this plan was to expand ‘Windrush’ beyond the inadequate design of justice, towards identifying ideas and/or propositions to move this Burning Work forward across areas of Community Cohesion, Criminal Justice, Education, Health and Work.
Windrush Defenders Legal C.I.C., the West Indian Sports and Social Club (WISSC), Arawak Walton Housing Association and Louise Da-Cocodia Education Trust commissioned Channels Research Group to construct and facilitate the digital forum along these lines of inquiry. At this online event on June 22nd, the testimony of guest speakers situated the case of Windrush within the historical context of British colonialism, followed by a presentation on the Windrush Scheme and Compensation schemes by the Government’s Director of the Windrush, Asylum, Immigration and Citizenship taskforce.
Established in 1978, Megatone Sound Foundation opened the Burning Work Digital Forum with a mix by Megadread of the Men of Sound project at the West Indian Sports and Social Club. Drawing from Caribbean modes of constructing community space through sound, his mix framed the Burning Work forum with music echoing the routes and roots which connect the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the continent of Africa. Interspersed with music from Megadread between each session, participants then had the option of breaking out into five digital rooms where guest speakers addressed the intersecting themes. Attendees then regrouped to feedback and listen to a closing plenary, before a final selection of music concluded the Burning Work digital forum.