Theresa May has issued a personal apology to Caribbean leaders for the treatment of the Windrush citizens who were wrongly threatened with deportation.
The prime minister used a meeting with the leaders of 12 Caribbean countries linked to the scandal to apologise for the “anxiety caused” by the treatment of British citizens, who arrived in the UK as children as far back as the 1940s.
It follows an apology from home secretary Amber Rudd over the row, which began when it emerged that some Windrush immigrants who were never fully naturalised had lost their jobs, been refused medical care or been threatened with deportation as they did not have the right documentation.
Addressing the leaders, Ms May said: ”I want to dispel any impression that my government is in some sense clamping down on Commonwealth citizens, particularly those from the Caribbean.
“I take this issue very seriously. The home secretary apologised in the House of Commons yesterday for any anxiety caused. And I want to apologise to you today. Because we are genuinely sorry for any anxiety that has been caused.”
Ms May added: “Those who arrived from the Caribbean before 1973 and lived here permanently without significant periods of time away in the last 30 years have the right to remain in the UK.
“As do the vast majority of long-term residents who arrived later, and I don’t want anybody to be in any doubt about their right to remain here in the United Kingdom.”
Affected people will not be “left out of pocket” while they establish their credentials to meet new government rules, the prime minister promised. She said: “This is a group of people who find themselves in a unique situation and we intend to ensure that this group will not pay for this documentation.”
Downing Street also said compensation would be considered if Windrush immigrants had suffered financial losses as a result of the scandal.
The row has overshadowed Ms May’s attempts to bolster relations with Commonwealth nations after Brexit at a biennial summit this week, as Caribbean leaders urged her to ensure the rights of their citizens.
The prime minister failed to mention the row at all in her speech on Tuesday – despite sitting alongside Baroness Scotland, the Dominica-born Commonwealth secretary general, who emigrated to the UK as a child.
Jamaican prime minister Andrew Holness also ramped up the pressure by telling delegates it was “only fair” to offer the Windrush immigrants security, as Ms May looked on.
He told the meeting: “As the case now stands and as history will show, citizens of the former colonies, particularly the West Indies, migrated to Great Britain, where they have significantly contributed to the building and enrichment of the country. Now these persons are not able to claim their place as citizens.
“Prime minister, we welcome your response and we look forward to a speedy implementation of your proposed solution.
“It is only fair and will lead to security certainly for those who have been affected.”
Home Office officials have been given two weeks to scour their records to find if anyone has been wrongly deported, after a government minister suggested some people might have already been expelled from the UK in error.
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MPs were astonished when Ms Rudd admitted the Home Office did not know whether any individuals had been sent home to countries they left as children amid a crackdown imposed by Ms May when she was the home secretary.
It comes after immigration minister Caroline Nokes appeared to suggest that some individuals may already have been deported in error.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington later told the BBC Today programme: “I talked to the home secretary about this last night and the position is that we have no information. We don’t know of any cases where someone has been deported from this category.”
He added that Home Office staff were searching records to see if anything had gone “appallingly wrong in that way”.