London (AFP) – Half a century after emigrating to Britain, Anthony Bryan decided it was time to go abroad. But the decision set off a bureaucratic nightmare that saw him lose his job, detained twice and almost deported to Jamaica.
“In 2015, the missus applied for a passport for me… She came back and told me, you’re illegal,” the 60-year-old told AFP at his home in north London, his partner Janet McKay-Williams by his side.
“I said, what are you talking about, ‘I’m illegal’? I can’t be illegal, I’ve been here from when I was eight years old.”
Bryan, now a grandfather, thought the issue could be resolved swiftly, since he moved to Britain legally as part of the so-called Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants after World War II.
But he and many others who failed to regularise their status have been caught up in a clampdown on illegal migration, which has seen them declared as undocumented migrants and unable to work or access benefits.
Outrage over their plight led to a personal apology from Prime Minister Theresa May to Caribbean leaders on Tuesday, and ministers have promised that no one will be deported or detained.
After a long and expensive battle with the authorities, Bryan received his right to remain in Britain in February — but nothing will change the trauma he and his family have been through.
“It was a nightmare,” he said, his T-shirt spattered with paint from the decorating job to which he has now happily returned.
“It’s nice that she (May) apologises because she realises they were wrong, but I didn’t feel the apology, to be honest. It didn’t make no difference to me,” Bryan said.
“Put me back where I was before they arrested me, that would be nice — I didn’t have no debts before immigration come in, I wasn’t worrying and fretting about anything,” he said.
“My life was put on hold.”
Bryan speaks with a thick London accent and considers himself British, but he admitted his treatment had “tested” his allegiance to his adopted country.
“It broke the trust that I thought I had with the British,” he said.
– ‘He’d be on the street’ –
In 1948, the ship Windrush brought the first group of migrants from the West Indies to help rebuild post-war Britain, and many others followed from around the Commonwealth.
A 1971 law gave them a legal right to remain, but many never formalised their status, often because they were children who came over on their parents’ or siblings’ passports and then never applied for their own.
In recent years a government clampdown on illegal immigration has begun to identify those without papers — scooping up many elderly people from the Windrush generation.
Bryan was particularly vulnerable because he struggles with reading and has few documents — he has never even opened a bank account — making it hard to find the required proof of his life in Britain.
He was detained twice, first for three weeks, after which he was told to report every fortnight to the authorities.
“That was the worst, going to sign on and not knowing if you’re going to come out,” he said.
In November last year, he was detained again and booked on a plane to Jamaica two days later.
An immigration lawyer obtained a last-minute injunction and he was released.
But each time he and his family say they received no official explanation — until they contacted a newspaper, The Guardian, after which his case progressed rapidly.
When he received confirmation of his status in February, “it was great, but I still didn’t feel great because my debts was rolling on me, my missus was stressed,” he said.
Once Bryan finally gets his British passport, he is looking forward to travelling to Jamaica where his mother now lives.
He said he would apply for government compensation for legal costs which have left him in debt, and the couple may also sue for wrongful detention.
“If he never had friends or family, he’d be on the street,” McKay-Williams said.