Sarah O’Connor, one of the most prominent victims of the Windrush scandal, was found dead at her home on Sunday 16 September. She was just 57 year old. By all accounts this is a life cut short at a time when females from all ethnicities on average live well into their seventies or eighties. With its preoccupation with Brexit, her death has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media except for the report in the Guardian whose correspondent Amelia Gentleman has assiduously followed the Windrush cases and brought the whole issue to the forefront only to be buried politically by clever public relations by the government in declaring an annual national Windrush Day on 22 June and the replacement of Amber Rudd by Sajid Javid as Home Secretary.
The coroner’s finding are expected to report death by natural cause but the key question is the extent to which her cruel treatment affected her health leading to an early death. Many would argue that this question is unanswerable and to an extent this is true but let us just consider the facts of her case. She migrated to Britain from Jamaica in 1967 at the age of six. She attended primary and secondary school here, worked continuously, at times for Ford in Dagenham and in retail, paid her taxes and national insurance, held a driving licence and voted in general elections. Having been married for 17 years to a British citizen, she has four children all of whom have British passports.
Her difficulties began in the summer of 2017 when she lost her job in a computer shop where she had worked for 16 years. She applied for a number of new jobs and was successful but unable to take up the posts because her employers asked her for a British passport, which she did not have. Having no other choice, she applied for benefits at the job centre to meet her needs but she was told that she was not eligible. She was asked by the benefits agency to prove she was in the country legally.
Conversely, an official decision was taken to categorise her as someone who was in the country illegally. In March this year, with no income from a job or any social security benefits, she was facing bankruptcy. She had to sell her car and ask her daughter for financial help to pay the rent and buy food. From the beginning of this year, she was so worried that she was afraid to open her front door for fear that bailiffs arrive to remove her possessions or immigration enforcement arresting her for deportation. She told Amelia Gentleman that “I can’t get another job without proving I’m legal and I can’t get the documents to do that. The stress of it is making me ill. When the doorbell goes I worry if it’s not the debt enforcers it’s going to be the immigration people, telling me I don’t belong here and trying to send me back to a country I don’t know”.
Her daughter, Stephanie O’Connor, saw how badly the immigration problems had affected her mother. She said “It made her very unhappy. I saw a complete change in her. She wasn’t the same mum any more. She felt like she wasn’t getting anywhere, and she was deflated. I was trying to keep her upbeat; she said she just wanted to give up”.
These testimonies show that the stress and anxieties that she was subjected to was tearing her life apart. She admitted being depressed. At this critical time, as an illegal, she had no access to the NHS to seek help for her medical and mental condition. It is not difficult to imagine the immense insecurity and fear that bore down upon her. On top of this, in the weeks before she died, her landlord had given her notice of eviction and she was having great difficulty finding a new home. This could have been the last straw that broke her spirit and health.
There is a compelling body of medical evidence on how emotional stress can cause a range of illnesses. In our society, medics tend to shy away from linking life experiences such as unemployment, debt, evictions to illnesses because health is seen as isolated from the social context. Some scientists have found that heavy workloads, job insecurity and living in poverty can result in increased stress, leading to depression and higher risk of acute cardiovascular episodes. It is not outside the realm of our imagination to see that what Sarah under went damaged hear health irretrievably.
She had courage enough to speak out publicly against the injustice she had suffered and joined others who had similar experience at a meeting organised in Parliament by David Lammy MP on May 1st. The immigration minister Caroline Nokes apologised to the half a dozen Windrush victims who were targeted by immigration enforcement. Soon after that she went through a naturalisation ceremony at the end of July and formally recognised as British. But the final year of her life when she tried to extract herself from a spiral of problems caused by the official decision to categorise her as illegal had taken its toll. It is now clear that no compensation was paid to her by the time of her death because her friends are crowd funding for the expenses of her funeral. This shows how reluctant the government is to pay compensation promptly to the Windrush victims.
Here was a working class black woman reduced to utter desolation. In the end, it all took a heavy toll. In Sarah’s case, the instrument was not a knife, a gun, violent assault or poison pill. It was a system of immigration enforcement, a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants set up under the Immigration Act of 2014 by Theresa May when she was the Home Secretary. The wielders were the bureaucrats in the Home Office, in social security, her prospective employers and her landlord. They exercised their powers with a chilling normality and cruelty without the slightest concern for her well being. Such dehumanisation is only possible when we have a political climate and culture which normalises the denial of jobs, housing, benefits, health to individuals who are labelled as illegal.
But for those who want racial justice, the politicians who put these cruel policies in place should be held to account. The hardline ‘hostile environment’ system is still in place. Theresa May who is now the Prime Minister still defends the system and wants to maintain it. Sajid Javid’s renaming the system as ‘compliant environment’ does not make any difference. We have immigration controls not on the borders but within civil society with checks carried out by private citizens such as doctors, teachers, landlords through fear of penalties. Black and ethnic minority people are disproportionally affected by it. Here we see state racism embedded in law extending through regulations to all other institutions in our society - hospitals, schools, work places, rented sector and banks. To reverse the policy, Theresa May would have to repeal her landmark legislation. This is not likely in spite of the Windrush scandal. The apologies and the gesture of declaring an annual Windrush Day are good public relations to bury the issue.
The hostile environment that entangled the Windrush victims is the same as that which has led to the detention of 3000 asylum seekers and refugees at any one time in 12 immigration removal outsourced to private companies which process nearly 30,000 people every year. These vulnerable people are detained indefinitely without any judicial intervention under the executive power exercised by the Home Secretary. Almost fifty percent of the people detained are released because they have a justifiable claim for asylum. Amnesty found that this system causes serious harm to the detainees and their families.
To fight for justice for the Windrush generation, we have to fight this system of injustice. It is a fight on many fronts- for human rights, against unjust laws, against the immigration enforcement, against detention and deportation requiring a coalition of activists, journalists, lawyers and organisations to work together. We have to join those like Liberty who launched a campaign against indefinite detention to those like the Movement for Justice are continually demonstrating to close Yarl’s Wood and opposing any deportation. Regrettably the wholly unjustifiable weaponisation of anti-semitism against Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-racist campaigner has diverted us away from the fight against racism and fascism. Only a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn will be in a strong position repeal the legislation underpinning the ‘hostile environment’ policy and dismantle its infrastructure. It is imperative that we redouble our effort to fight racism at every level- popular, newspaper led, institutional and state. Anti-racism is inclusive and will bring all communities together to fight for justice. We should do this in memory of Sarah O’Connor to ensure that her memory does not die.