Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May joined more than 2,000 others at Westminster Abbey in London on Friday to recognize the contributions to the country by immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean and elsewhere invited in 70 years ago to help rebuild its war-ravaged economy. But it was more an act of contrition over the way the British government treated these people during its own crackdown on illegal immigration, giving birth to the Windrush scandal.
The ship Empire Windrush – yes, empire was flouted in those days – docked in London on June 22, 1948, with 1,027 passengers, 802 of them from the Caribbean, but the “Windrush generation” eventually totaled more than 50,000, coming from several other countries, with a promise that they could live and work in Britain. But the “hostile environment” policy imposed in 2009 to deter illegal immigration began to ensnare the Windrush generation by 2013. Some were deported, many could not find jobs or obtain medical treatment; some who traveled abroad were denied re-entry. Massive protests led to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, whom May replaced in April with Sajid Javid, the first Muslim in such a senior post. The government also agreed to compensate those who were affected.
The Windrush saga affirmed the British government’s willingness to accept when it is wrong and the controversy was defused, no doubt because Javid, son of Pakistani immigrants, was now in charge. It also calls attention to the fact that too often the contributions of immigrants to their adopted countries are overlooked or derided. The current refugee crisis reflects that attitude. Regardless of what the nativists are saying, there is a simple explanation for the current mass exodus: the lopsided imbalance balance between the “third world” and industrialized nations, rooted in a history of colonialism, world wars, the “cold war” and neocolonialism.
Small nations could not control their own destinies during occupation by colonizers or during the wars and the “cold war.” The closest they came was with the Non-Aligned Movement established in 1961 on the initiative of Josip Broz Tito, president of then Yugoslavia, the other founders being Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. The movement expanded to dozens of other countries and posed a direct challenge to the international order.
They wanted not just political non-alignment but also their own institutions separate from the ones imposed by the superpowers, to create “south-south” linkages in place of the exploitative “north-south” arrangements governing the world. Their enthusiasm got a boost in 1973-1974 when Arab oil-producing nations imposed an embargo on petroleum exports to press for more royalties. The NonAligned Movement, which gave international cover to the embargo, hoped to be rewarded with petro-dollars to finance their proposed new economic order. The financing never materialized and it took only a few years for the oil-producing nations to succumb to pressure and the steam to be knocked out of the movement.
At the end of the 44-year cold war, the world, for the smaller nations, was one in which they lost the political and economic patronage from their respective blocs. Their borders were long ago drawn to suit the colonial masters, often dividing tribes and states and setting the stage for never-ending crises and bloody internecine wars fought with weapons for which they paid with much of their gross domestic products while their peoples suffer; the British newspaper The Independent reported in 2014 that only 11 countries were conflict-free then – of a total of 162 surveyed.
The industrialized nations have not acknowledged a historic debt to the small nations and responsibility for their plight. They did not launch a Marshall Plan to help them, as they did for some nations after WWII. So the world entered the 21st century with the super-rich, on one side, possessing wealth beyond imagination and all the trappings that come with it, and, on the other side, deadly wars, famine, disease, abject poverty and hopelessness. No amount of “zero tolerance” and “hostile environment” can obscure the fact that, of the 7.6 billion people who inhabit the planet, only about one billion live in well-to-do countries and about 50 percent of the world’s wealth is in the hands of one percent of the population.
But the evil you do can come back to haunt you. So long as this abject inequality exists and the response to the flight from the impoverished nations is to turn them away, so long will the refugees from a history of oppression, exploitation, suppression and instability continue to come. The answer is obviously to move rapidly to transform the poor nations into stable, habitable places where their peoples want to stay at home, not erecting walls and turning away the ships with human cargo.
Until then, as always, they will do anything to gain access to the seat of the empire and its glorious promise of a better future, their brown and black hands raised in supplication to the overlords in the gleaming towers rising into the sun, the barbarians arrived at the gate – and still they come.