The appalling, degrading and shameful way the Windrush generation has been treated by this Tory government has shocked us all this week. But it is a mistake to dismiss it as an isolated accident. Sadly, it speaks to a deliberately insular and divisive attitude the Tories have increasingly taken towards immigration over recent years: an approach that is understandably causing huge concern to EU citizens in Britain.
In what should go down in history as a national scandal, potentially thousands of people – many of them Londoners – have been subject to inhumane treatment at the hands of the immigration system designed by Theresa May in order to “create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants” when she was home secretary.
We must remember that we are not talking about statistics or numbers. These are real people – just like my parents – who were welcomed to this country from other parts of the Commonwealth, came and stayed here legally, and helped us to rebuild Great Britain following the devastation of the Second World War.
They have contributed so much to making our country what it is today, yet many have been made to feel like they are not welcome in the country they call home.
Introducing a system that means landlords have to check the nationality of tenants; that means that some NHS staff have to check the nationality of patients, and that means many of our public institutions have to essentially become arms of the UK Border Agency has created the abhorrent situation where British people have been unjustly denied access to housing, jobs, welfare and even medical treatment.
This is simply unacceptable. It’s right that the prime minister has apologised, but the impression has been created that this disgraceful episode is an anomaly, which simply isn’t true. Instead it is the product of deliberate and consistent behaviour from a party that is increasingly willing to treat all immigrants and refugees with suspicion and hostility, and to fuel division within our communities for their own political gain.
In the mayoral election in 2016, the Tories ran one of the most divisive and negative campaigns in recent history, seeking to turn communities in London against each other. They failed.
But it didn’t end there. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a Tory campaign leaflet in Havering – signed off by the Conservative Party Head Office – which was described by the Tory peer, Andrew Cooper, as “a case study in racist signalling”.
The Government’s decision to withdraw the post-study work visa and to treat students as immigrants has had huge repercussions; many young, talented people from countries we have historic bonds with – such as India – have been made to feel unwelcome.
The truth is the Tories have essentially swallowed whole the Ukip position and approach on immigration. And the latest Windrush scandal, with people being wrongly targeted for deportation, is just symptomatic of the hostile environment – driven both through policy and rhetoric – which has been deliberately created by this Tory government since 2010.
Imagine how EU citizens living here must be feeling right now. Already faced with great uncertainty over their future status post-Brexit, they are now confronted with the reality of how this government is willing to treat some of its own citizens. Understandably, many EU nationals are now terrified of what this could mean for them, given the government’s approach and the sheer incompetence demonstrated by the Home Office.
Just like many of those from the Windrush generation living in London, EU citizens living here are Londoners. They make a massive contribution, not just to our economy, but to our culture and our society too. These are our friends, our neighbours, our work colleagues and our family members. Instead of being used as bargaining chips, they should be treated fairly and with the respect they deserve.
The government must now do the right thing. All EU citizens living here should receive a cast-iron guarantee that they can stay – with all the same rights they had before the referendum, and with simple processes in place for them to obtain these rights.
Another sad aspect of all of this is that the Windrush scandal has not only shocked and appalled us here in Britain, but in countries across the world. Combined with the government’s misguided approach to visas and immigration in recent years, Britain’s hard-won reputation for being open to people and talent from around the globe is now being seriously damaged.
Enough is enough. The outcry over the Windrush scandal should be a wakeup call – not only to the Tories that they have gone too far in creating such a hostile environment for immigrants, but that we all have a responsibility to help reshape, improve and humanise the debate around immigration.
If we allow the Tories to take our country along this path for much longer, I suspect it will be something we all live to regret bitterly in the years ahead.
Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London