The arbitrary cruelty of the ‘hostile environment’ stretches beyond any one community. Brexit will only make it worse
Thu 3 Jan 2019
Tasfin came to the UK in 1962 from Bangladesh, or what was then called East Pakistan. He was 19 years old. Orphaned during the brutal partition of India by the departing British, he had been working since the age of 12 for an American company in the port city of Chittagong. He made tea, unloaded containers, repaired cars and swept floors. And he eventually concluded that the only way to ensure a better life for himself was to scrape together the fare for a one-way ride to the Tilbury Docks. As a citizen of the Commonwealth, he enjoyed this right to move to the United Kingdom, as did all those now fondly referred to as the “Windrush generation”.
Now 84, Tasfin lives in Tooting, south London, with the eldest of his three sons, surrounded by grandchildren, the youngest of whom will be sitting her GCSEs in a few months’ time. After working for over 40 years on the London Underground, he retired a few months after his wife passed away and struggles with chronic arthritis.
We meet by chance on the No 44 bus and Tasfin, it turns out, is on his way to apply for his first passport. He proudly tells me, “Her Majesty’s Government wrote me a letter to say that I am now a British citizen.”
As with so many others, Tasfin’s journey to this point had started with a routine interaction with the state turning his entire life upside down. In this case it was a visit to an outpatient NHS service in late 2017, where he was asked to prove his immigration status. Having never had the means to travel, Tasfin had never possessed a passport. “My wife was better with paperwork but she had already quit and gone upstairs.” So this elderly man was swallowed whole by the hostile environment.
With no access to healthcare, Tasfin had no way of knowing that the pain in his legs was because of easily treatable blood clots, and he slowly stopped trying to walk at all. By last April there were letters arriving from the Home Office, threatening removal. “I didn’t leave my house or even open the curtains, I was so scared that they would snatch me and take me away”.
Tasfin tells me that he had read about the Windrush scandal in his newspaper and seen it on TV. But “I didn’t come from the Caribbean so I didn’t think it was the same thing”, says Tasfin. It was months before a lawyer attending his mosque heard about Tasfin’s problems and helped him call the Windrush Taskforce. “Alhamdulillah [praise be to God] he said something or I might not be here.”