"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
The shocking treatment of the Windrush generation by the UK scratched an old sore of mine. The whole saga is no surprise. It avows my view that you need to hold officials, and their mealy-mouthed political masters, to account. I realise this is not a unique opinion, but experiencing it first-hand is affirming.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, a struggling UK sought people from the colonies to rebuild a nation broken by war. Cheap labour from the West Indies arrived on the first ship ‘Empire Windrush’. Hence a generational name. On arrival simple ‘landing cards’ recorded personal details. This process was the only documentation of new arrivals for many years to come.
Move forward many decades. The Windrush folks have toiled in hospitals, kept public transport running, paid their taxes, raised families.
Then things start to go astray. With the 'landing cards' destroyed in 2009 or 2010 (depending who you believe) they can't prove they've landed legally. Meanwhile, an aggressive Home Office is pursuing them. Theresa May laid the foundations of this approach during her tenure as Home Secretary. As many have no documents, they're trapped. Denied access to medical care, some face deportation, as their lives get torn apart.
Meanwhile, the politicians are busy pointing fingers at each other as a human tragedy unfolds. The countries moral standing is in the toilet. The fact that the Windrush generation is black tinges the whole saga with a hint of racism.
Let's be clear, Britain has a record of double-dealing and insincerity in its immigration policies. In 1948, Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, sought to acknowledge the debt owed the Empire for helping win the war. He created ‘Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies’. With this status came ‘right of abode’ in the UK. Since then it’s rolled back on those undertakings.
The 1981 British Nationality Act deprived Hong Kong citizens of those rights. Timing is everything. With 1997 negotiations looming, did the UK fear an influx of Hong Kong Chinese? Later in 1983, the UK receded the provisions applying to the Falkland Islanders. It granted them full British citizenship. Admittedly the number involved was small, yet a nasty taste remains in the mouth.
As a serving RHKP officer, these matters come into sharp focus for me in the mid- 1980's. Married to a Hong Kong lady, we had young kids and faced a dilemma. With the return of Hong Kong announced in 1984, I'm encouraged to stay on for continuity. The sudden departure of officers could disrupt policing. And yet the immigration status of my spouse and children remained uncertain.
As negotiations rumbled on between Britain and China, many of us couldn’t wait for answers. In an attempt to provide us reassurance, a series of chinless mandarins arrived from the UK. Politicians, accompanied by patronising officials, relayed the message ‘Britain would act with honour’. It didn’t help that officials couldn't hide their annoyance as we challenged them for details. We were a nuisance, who should shut up.
Some senior police officers were also unhelpful, suggesting we ‘shouldn't rock the boat’. As these men would be gone by 1997, their self-interest was ugly and contemptible.
And yet, the message of ‘honourable’ behaviour didn’t appear to have reached the Home Office. Officers who sought the Home Secretary’s discretion to wave UK residency requirements as members of a 'designated service’ met resistance and rejection. Applications disappeared into the system; then we heard nothing for years. One couple waited three years for a rejection.
Matters came to a head in June 1989. The events in Beijing shook Hong Kong’s confidence. The Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe heard it first hand on 4th July 1989. With nerves frayed, weeks after Tien An Mun, he met with the Hong Kong Police Staff Associations. He took robust views from officers frustrated at the UK's intransigence.
In an attempt to shore up confidence, the UK responded with a meagre offer of 50,000 passports for Hong Kong. The inequity of these arrangements didn't go unrecognised. In a June 1990 Parliamentary debate MP Steven Norris noted:
" ... the extraordinary proposition that if an ethnic Chinese obtains a passport under the scheme and his wife, who is a substantially better position than the ethnic Chinese wife of a British citizen... "
Still, Home Office officials refused to budge. Except that word leaked that officers in specific sensitive departments did get a concession. At the same time, local officers received reassurances in confidential briefings.
Faced with this situation, we opted to go to London. We wrote, visited and canvassed MPs across all parties. In October 1990, we gained a meeting with the cross-party British Hong Kong Parliamentary Group. There was instant understanding and support.
Suddenly, the Home Office awoke. As one MP told us, officials don’t like them prying and asking questions about process. The Home Secretary found himself able to grant an exemption.
The Hong Kong Immigration Department told to cooperate, expedited action. Acting as the UK's agent, it processed and verified applications. Things then got farcical. It was necessary that the wives undergo an English assessment. A Hong Kong official conducted the test, struggling with his pronunciation. Bemused ladies shrugged it off.
The inconvenience we went through was nothing compared to that inflicted on the Windrush generation. I do not suggest to equate the two. The comparison sits in the negative and hostile attitude of the Home Office. Even back in the 1980's, with an opportunity to resolve matters, officials refused to move. They ignored us, scorned us and then only deemed to act as political pressure mounted.
As a vocal, well-resourced group of insiders, we harnessed the media and politicians to campaign. We rejected unworthy voices that told us to keep quiet. Nor would we accept empty verbal assurances. How much more terrible it must be for people without the clout we wielded. It pleases that the Windrush generation's plight is now public. Besides, Mrs May needs to act to restore a sense of decency in the UK.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.