Grenfell tower fire immigration
Photograph: Natalie Oxford

Grenfell, Windrush and the Hostile Environment: Why We Must Not Forget

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In October, the first of a two-phase inquiry into the Grenfell fire tragedy was released, recalling the events which occurred on 14th June 2017 when a fatal fire spread throughout Grenfell Tower.

Despite the first-phase of the inquiry setting out solely to examine events as they occurred – refraining from providing analysis into the causes of the fire (which are due to be examined in phase two) – the document spurred a thought-provoking piece on the societal tendency to outline the most immediate causes of tragedies and ‘to ignore, or downplay, more distant but often more significant issues’.

While there is recognition of the detrimental role played by both regulation and policy in the case of Grenfell, the piece suggests that we are ‘nevertheless drawn to thinking primarily about immediate, proximate causes.’

Sadly, this rings true for those who acknowledge the racialised implications of Grenfell as they are often met with accusations of politicising tragedy. Yet, such resistance to these distant causes only further contributes to a whitewashed culture of silence which disregards and subsequently erases victim identity.

The second-class status imposed upon Grenfell’s residents exposes the most concrete evils of class and race inequality

Grenfell Tower, a council housing complex in North Kensington, was home to refugees, European migrants, asylum seekers, white British working-class and British BAME individuals. Over half of the 72 victims had arrived to the UK after 1990, reflecting the many immigrants who called Grenfell home.

As Nesrine Malik wrote in the days following the tragedy: ‘It was impossible to read the names of the dead and the missing and not see that they, or their parents, were displaced from elsewhere […] The list is now extending into a roll call of the marginalised, the maligned and the disenfranchised.’

As victims were named and family members spoke out, it became increasingly clear that those disproportionately affected by the tragedy were minority ethnic communities.

Yet, despite this, two years later there remains a predominant focus on the most immediate causes of the fire, including the highly flammable cladding surrounding Grenfell and, most recently, interrogation of the London Fire Brigade regarding the actions taken and advice given on the night of the tragedy.

While these are vitally important factors in and of themselves, more scrutiny ought to be directed towards what allows such malpractices to thrive in the first place.

Photograph: Getty

The hostile environment implemented by the Conservative government inevitably played a role in the neglect and disdain shown towards those living in Grenfell tower. The second-class status imposed upon Grenfell’s residents is painfully clear and exposes the most concrete evils of class and race inequality. It is a reality that cannot be denied, with social housing merely the face of this evil.

Ignored when raising concerns over the safety hazards identified in their homes and deprived of legal aid which prevented further action, Grenfell residents had exhausted various attempts to demand action from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council.

These residents did not lack ‘common sense’ as Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk would have the public believe – they were unmistakably aware of the ways in which their building failed to comply with the required standards and the threat it posed.

The point is, their voices were suppressed and fears dismissed at every opportunity. It is no exaggeration, then, to view the tragedy for what it is – a form of social murder, executed by those in power and hurting those most vulnerable to such vicious, careless policies.

To add insult to injury, surrounding Grenfell tower lay 1,652 unoccupied, million-pound homes. While the elite are able to treat homes as mere investments – money-making machines left to stand as empty shells – waiting lists for social housing are ever-growing and several survivors of Grenfell are still made to endure temporary accommodation.

Photograph: WSWS

While many of Grenfell’s residents were British and/or held secure immigration status, it didn’t take long before the focus shifted and a cruel narrative spun alleging that some victims did not have secure immigration status.

Crass, inhumane claims have been made since, with the worst of these accusations going as far as to suggest that some of those who lost their lives in the fire chose to stay put as they were afraid of authorities discovering that they were undocumented.

Those who make such claims do so confidently, seemingly lacking all self-awareness regarding what such theories tell us of society.

To so unthinkingly suggest that people would sooner die than face authorities in fear of being detained or deported ought to speak for itself. However, it is important to emphasise that these claims of undocumented immigrants are entirely unsubstantiated to begin with – an abhorrent distraction from what actually matters.  

To overlook the direct impact of Conservative austerity policies, their systemic racism and their consistent marginalisation of minorities, would be an abject failure of humanity.

In light of the imminent general election, it seems essential to revisit tragedies such as Grenfell and Windrush. I say ‘revisit’, however for survivors and the communities affected, they continue to live the repercussions every day. Their reality is unchanged.

Yet, in the current political climate and just two days away from an opportunity to enact change, it must be reinforced that a common denominator of such devastation is the wilful maltreatment of minority groups – particularly immigrants – under the Conservative government.

As one tweet rightly pointed out just days ago, ‘In a non-racist country the hostile environment and Windrush scandal would be one of the main topics in the election discussion and make the governing party unelectable. But then a non-racist government wouldn’t have engineered either of them.’

Screenshot: Twitter (@jonlis1)

Mainstream media has barely touched upon these tragedies since the election campaigns begun, instead opting to smear Jeremy Corbyn wherever possible.

While Phillip Schofield incessantly urged Corbyn to apologise – again – for anti-Semitism in the Labour party, not a word was uttered on Grenfell, Windrush and the hostile environment when interviewing Boris Johnson, all of which occurred under a Tory government.

To overlook the direct impact of Conservative austerity policies, their systemic racism and their consistent marginalisation of minorities, would be an abject failure of humanity.

This election truly is a matter of life or death for thousands across the country. We must not allow history to repeat itself and must remember the root causes of Grenfell and Windrush; a complete contempt for the working-class and marginalised groups across the spectrum.


Written by
Holly Barrow
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