A number of survivors from London's Grenfell Tower tragedy last June, which saw at least 71 people die in a tower block blaze caused by poor fire safety measures, may now face deportation after the deadline for applying for an immigration "amnesty" passed on Jan. 31. There is also a risk that family members might be investigated and deported.
Undocumented migrants living in Grenfell Tower were offered an amnesty period of a year, provided they applied before this deadline. Critics say the deadline was inadequately publicized and that the process risks hampering the forthcoming inquiry into the fire by potentially discouraging and preventing residents from giving evidence.
Prime Minister Theresa May announced in Parliament just after the fire that she would not use the tragedy as a way to clamp down on residents' immigration status. She then performed a U-turn and undocumented immigrants were promised only the year-long amnesty.
"The Justice4Grenfell campaign is outraged that survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire who have core participation status in the upcoming public inquiry could face the possibility of deportation," said a spokesperson for the campaign, which developed immediately after the fire tragedy.
"Immediately after the disaster Theresa May said no one should feel scared about coming forward. Then Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis announced a pitiful one-year amnesty for undocumented migrants living in the tower. Now he has said survivors can apply for permanent residence, but only after a five-year period of regular observation by the state."
Justice4Grenfell campaigners are deeply concerned about May's inability to stick to her promises and the impact of her decision on the inquiry. They say residents who manage not to be deported will still be afraid of being identified and may decide to stay silent.
"This constant shifting of the immigration policy has meant that people will not come forward with crucial information for the public inquiry and the criminal investigation. Relatives who were granted visas in the aftermath of the fire now face the possibility of their visas expiring," the spokesperson added.
"Yet in some cases, it has taken over four months for remains to be released and funerals to take place. This could mean that families will have to leave the UK before any substantive hearings at inquests or the public inquiry, and before any completion of the police investigation and criminal proceedings."
According to Dr. Nando Sigona, deputy director at the University of Birmingham's Institute for Research into Superdiversity, "The so-called 'amnesty' for undocumented residents was not something the government conceded without sustained pressure from community groups and activists, and it came with two big caveats: A deadline for applying that just expired and a 12-month sell-by date.
"This means that even those who benefitted from it are now just a few months away from fearing deportation."
Sigona says the situation is symptomatic of the government's "single-minded obsession" with immigration, even in the wake of a tragedy like Grenfell. "To me the greatest obstacle to people coming forward was the limited duration of the amnesty," Sigona told Occupy.com. "Those who applied and came forward are now especially vulnerable as their names and whereabouts are known to the authorities."
Responding to criticism of the immigration crackdown on Grenfell residents, Britain's Home Office said: "The welfare of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire is a top priority for this government. That is why we introduced a policy to encourage people who may have feared enforcement action to come forward and access the support they need. If anyone were to come forward after the deadline, we would still consider them for leave outside of the immigration rules as an exceptional case."
The Home Office insists that the amnesty deadline was sufficiently publicized, stating, "Our policy has been promoted online and by teams and stakeholders on the ground and has also received extensive media coverage." But there is no evidence that residents were sent any written correspondence, meaning that many people without internet access, or who did not encounter Home Office representatives "on the ground", may have been unaware of the deadline.
The Labour party has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the government's plans. Labour MP Diane Abbott wrote a letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd in which she pointed out that many of the survivors "have been granted core participant status for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, however it appears that arrangements have not been made to secure their stay in relation to it". She ended the letter by asking that Grenfell survivors and their families receive "indefinite leave to remain on a discretionary basis". Rudd has yet to respond to Abbott's letter.
With many survivors' visas due to run out in the next few weeks, time is short for politicians and campaigners to reverse the government's decision and halt the deportations. To many, the government's agenda seems clear: Not only is the move symptomatic of a wider attempt to push immigrants out of the UK, but it risks severely compromising a fair inquiry into a serious incident at a time when the UK government's credibility is already on the line.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy, which occurred in a council-run tower block, affected people on low incomes as well as those with uncertain immigration status. For many observers, May's government is showing once again how overtly and shamelessly it is capable of robbing the underdog of a voice.