The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, sounded genuine when she turned to Paulette Wilson, a former House of Commons canteen worker, during a packed Windrush hearing in parliament on Tuesday and said: “Particularly Mrs Wilson, I wanted to say that I was personally sorry to you, and I mean that most sincerely.”
The apology was a significant moment in a tumultuous six-month period during which Wilson, who has lived in the UK for 50 years, was wrongly classified as an illegal immigrant, held in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre and removed to Heathrow where she was threatened with deportation to Jamaica – a country she has not visited since she was 10.
In the past six months, she has made the brave decision to go public with her experiences, giving an interview to the Guardian that triggered the gradual exposure of the Windrush scandal, which this week led to the resignation of the home secretary on Sunday.
Wilson, 61, was delighted to return to the House of Commons for the first time since she left her job there in the early 1990s. She visited the canteen overlooking the river Thames where she had spent about a year clearing trays after MPs and parliament staff had finished their meals.
On Tuesday night, she ate supper in the Commons’ Strangers’ Dining Room(where MPs can take guests), with her MP, Emma Reynolds. She was surprised and delighted to meet former colleagues who had been working there for the past 30 years. It was a very emotional and happy evening for her and her daughter Natalie Barnes.
Wilson is still processing the full impact of her decision to speak out about her detention, as the government promises that the Home Office will become more “humane”, “fairer” and “compassionate”. Even if this new approach never materialises – and the repeal of some legislation would be required before things can really change – Wilson is just extremely happy that so many other people’s terrible experiences have been exposed, as a result of her account of her own treatment.
“I did not realise that my story was going to become this big and bring out a lot of people with this problem. People are dying because of this, because they have nowhere to turn and no one to talk to,” she said.
Wilson had agreed only reluctantly last November to speak about her immigration difficulties. One of the reasons that Windrush victims’ problems have remained hidden for so long is that it takes a lot of courage to talk publicly about having been categorised as an illegal immigrant – both generally at a time of great public hostility towards all kinds of immigrants, but particularly when the Home Office is still sending you letters informing you that you are liable for deportation.
She wonders if her problems began when she approached pension age, and suspects her files may have been looked at as she was transferred on to pension department books. She lost her home in 2015, a few months after the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her disability benefit payments. “They took my flat away,” Wilson said.
Barnes was amazed to hear that her mother had been classified as an illegal immigrant. For a while Wilson was so frightened at the letters she was getting from the Home Office that she did not tell her daughter about them. When her daughter found out, she was briefly quite angry with her mother. “I never, ever once thought that my mum was an illegal immigrant. I asked her why she hadn’t told me.”
“I thought I was English,” Wilson said.
On 18 October 2017, Wilson was detained at the Wolverhampton Home Office reporting centre where she had been reporting on a fortnightly basis since August 2015. She was put in a vehicle that reminded her of a “meat van”, because it had no windows, and taken to Yarl’s Wood for six days; she says this was the worst experience of her life.
She called her daughter from the detention centre and cried uncontrollably down the line. “I said: ‘Get me out of here, Natalie, please get me out of here.’” After six days she was put in another van, and when she got out she realised she was being taken to a building next to Heathrow airport; she was told that she would be put on a plane the next day.
It was only at the last minute that she was released, given a travel warrant for train tickets and let out to make her way back to Wolverhampton. “The planes were taking off over my head; I had to put my hands to my ears because of the noise,” she said.
Wilson wonders if official racism was behind her treatment. As a child in Wolverhampton, she remembers being called “little black Sambo” and told “go back to your own country” and she got into fights occasionally at school because of these comments. But until this happened in 2015, she did not think racism was particularly prevalent here and she is reluctant to see Britain overall as a bad place, despite the terrible treatment she has endured over the past three years. “I have had a really good life here,” she said.
Barnes said she tried repeatedly to get staff to realise a mistake had been made. “I got banned from the Home Office [reporting centre] because of my questions and because I was telling them that my mum is not illegal, she is a British citizen. They told me that they can’t answer any questions through the screen, that you have to speak to your caseworker. They said we had a caseworker, but we never, ever met one in two and a half years, so I don’t know,” she said.
Wilson said she felt the political crisis had not ended with Rudd’s resignation. “I’m not a political person, but they’re hiding something. This has been going on for a very long time,” she said. She has still not been told why she was released or why she was detained in the first place. “I still don’t know,” she said.
Over supper she reflected on her lucky escape. “Just imagine if I had been deported to Jamaica. Where would I have gone? I don’t know anybody there.”
Barnes said she had been very nervous about encouraging her mother to speak to the media about her situation, but when she met other Windrush victims in the House of Commons on Tuesday, she realised how important her mother’s story had been.
“I’m so glad we spoke out and I’m so glad it meant so many other people came forward with their stories and that now they are all being recognised as British citizens – which is what they are. This has changed my mum: it has brought her confidence back. She can’t stop smiling,” she said.