SARAH O’CONNOR, one of the most prominent victims of the Windrush scandal, was found dead at her home on 16th September just 57 years old. This was a life cut short at a time when women on average live well into their 70s or 80s. Her death has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media, except for the reports by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, who has assiduously followed the Windrush cases.
The coroner’s findings are expected to report death by natural causes, but the key question is the extent to which her cruel treatment affected her health, leading to an early death.
Sarah migrated to Britain from Jamaica in 1967 at the age of six. She attended school here, worked continuously, 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. 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 was told that she was not eligible. She was asked by the benefits agency to prove she was in the country legally.
An official decision was taken to categorise her as someone who was here illegally. In March, with no income or any 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. She was so worried that she was afraid to open her front door for fear of bailiffs arriving to remove her possessions or immigration enforcement officers arresting her for deportation.
She told Amelia Gentleman, “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.” Her daughter saw how badly the immigration problems had affected her mother. She said, “I saw a complete change in her - she said she just wanted to give up.”
These testimonies show that the anxieties she was subjected to were tearing her life apart. She admitted being depressed. 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 oppressed her. 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. 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. What Sarah underwent could have damaged her health irretrievably.
She had courage enough to speak out publicly against the injustice she had suffered. The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, apologised to the half a dozen Windrush victims who were targeted by immigration enforcement.
Soon after that, Sarah went through a naturalisation ceremony at the end of July and was 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 had been paid to her by the time of her death, because her friends are crowd-funding for the expenses of her funeral.
Here was a working class black woman reduced to utter desolation by the ‘hostile environment’ set up under the Immigration Act of 2014 by the then Home secretary Theresa May. Those responsible were the bureaucrats in the Home Office and in social security, her prospective employers and her landlord.
They exercised their powers with a chilling normality without the slightest concern for her wellbeing. Such dehumanisation is only possible in a political climate which normalises the denial of jobs, housing, benefits and health to individuals labelled illegal.
But for those who want racial justice, the politicians who put these cruel policies in place should be held to account. The ‘hostile environment’ is still in place. We have immigration controls, not on the borders, but within civil society with checks carried out by private citizens such as doctors, teachers and landlords through fear of penalties. Ethnic minority people are disproportionately affected by state racism embedded in law, extending through regulations to all other institutions in our society - hospitals, schools, workplaces, the rented sector and banks.
The ‘hostile environment’ that entangled the Windrush victims is the same as that which has led to the detention of 3,000 asylum seekers and refugees at any one time in twelve immigration removal centres, 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 50% of those 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.
We have to fight this system of injustice. It is a fight for human rights, against unjust laws, against immigration enforcement, detention and deportation. It requires a coalition of activists, journalists, lawyers and organisations working together. We have to join those like Liberty, who launched a campaign against indefinite detention, and the Movement for Justice, who demonstrate to close Yarl’s Wood and oppose any deportation.
Only a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn will repeal the legislation underpinning the ‘hostile environment’ policy and dismantle its infrastructure. We must 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 to ensure that the memory of Sarah O’Connor does not die.