“Despite having lived here and paid taxes for decades, some [Commonwealth-born people] have lost their homes, jobs and benefits, been denied NHS treatment and been threatened with deportation… Research by academics at the Oxford University-based Migration Observatory suggests that up to 57,000 people who arrived in the UK before 1971 could be subject to such appalling treatment.”
Daily Mail, 16 April 2018
People born in Commonwealth countries who arrived in the UK before 1973, and have lived here ever since, have the right to live in the UK indefinitely. This also applies to the wives and children of those people. Many of them are UK citizens.
There have been reports that some of those people have lost access to services or potentially faced deportation because they have been unable to prove that they have lived in the UK since before 1973.
In June 2017 there were estimated to be 524,000 Commonwealth-born people living in the UK who arrived before 1971, and 57,000 of them self-report as not being UK citizens. This doesn’t tell us how many have faced problems proving their right to be in the UK.
These figures are based on the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which provides "estimates of population characteristics rather than exact measures". As Commonwealth-born individuals who arrived in the UK before 1971 are a small subset of the LFS, there's more uncertainty around the accuracy of their estimated population size.
The government has this week said "we have some made some mistakes, which we cannot continue to make". It has also said it doesn’t know of any cases where someone has been deported who had the right to remain in the UK, but it will check through the records to make sure, and a team has been set up to help people “evidence their right to be here and to access the necessary services”.
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What residency rights do people born in the Commonwealth have?
The passing of British Nationality Act 1948 made citizens of Commonwealth countries citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.
New immigration rules were introduced in the intervening years, before the Immigration Act 1971 changed the law to grant only temporary residence to most people arriving from Commonwealth countries. This came into force in 1973.
However, people born in Commonwealth countries (and their wives and children) who settled in the UK before 1973 were still allowed to remain in the UK indefinitely under the terms of the new Act. They retain that right today.
Those who arrived in the UK as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies between 1948 and 1972 are known as the “Windrush generation”—named after a ship which brought Caribbean workers to the UK in 1948. Some media outlets include only those arriving from the Caribbean in the Windrush generation, while others refer to it as those from all Commonwealth countries.
So why are there problems now?
Various media outlets have reported the cases of individuals who arrived in the UK from Caribbean Commonwealth countries as children in 1950s and 60s. Some are now having problems accessing services or face deportation as they don’t have the documents to prove they arrived before 1973.
The reports say some individuals are unable to prove their status because they have never applied for a British passport or been formally naturalised, or don’t have complete documentary records of their residence.
New immigration rules introduced in 2014 require landlords and the NHS (among others) to see proof of residence in the UK before providing certain services. So some people born in Commonwealth countries may be having to prove their immigration status for the first time, and are encountering problems if they can’t.
How many people are affected?
The Migration Observatory estimates there were 524,000 people living in the UK, in the 12 months to June 2017, who were born in Commonwealth countries and arrived before 1971. Of these, 57,000 said they weren’t UK citizens.
However there are limits to what the numbers can tell us. The Migration Observatory says that “These figures do not represent an estimate of the number of people who are now likely to have difficulty demonstrating their legal status in the UK.” That will depend on whether or not they have the necessary documentation.
The information on nationality is self-reported—so anyone who mistakenly believes they are a UK citizen will not be included in the 57,000. And those born in the Commonwealth who are UK citizens could also have problems if they have lost their proof of citizenship in the intervening years.
The data only records people arriving before 1971, whereas the Immigration Act was introduced in 1973. So anyone arriving in 1971 or 1972 will not be included in the data.
The data also excludes citizens of Malta and Cyprus (which are in the Commonwealth), as they have the right to live in the UK as EU citizens. It also doesn’t count people who live in places like care homes.