Community rallies around elderly Sikh woman as UK Home Office threatens to deport her
Community campaigners are rallying behind an elderly Sikh woman from Smethwick who is being threatened with deportation, despite living in the country for over ten years.
Outraged friends and neighbours of 75-year-old Gurmit Kaur have jumped to her defence after menacing letters threatening to “secure her removal” were sent to the senior citizen by the government immigration services.
Septuagenarian Kaur, who has been living in Sandwell for over ten years but with no immigration papers, is a much-loved figure in her community and regularly volunteers at her local Sikh temple providing food for others.
Yet, in spite of her commitment to her community and home, UK Border Agency contractor Capita has written to Ms Kaur demanding she either leaves or be arrested and deported.
Legally an undocumented migrant, UK Visas and Immigration representatives have told Kaur to go back to India even though she has no family there.
Activists say Kaur is a victim of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, echoing similar experiences suffered by victims of the nation’s recent Windrush scandal, which has seen scores of Black Britons wrongly detained and deported to the Caribbean since 2018.
The Home Office policy is a set of administrative and legislative measures designed to make staying in the United Kingdom as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain.
Although first announced as the Hostile Environment Policy in 2012 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, the measures were initially outlined by Birmingham MP Liam Byrne in May 2007, who was the Labour immigration minister at the time.
Proposing the need to “flush illegal migrants out“, Byrne said at the time: “We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally”.
Adopted by the Conservatives, the policy has resulted in a political scandal resulting in British people of Caribbean descent being wrongly detained, denied legal rights and threatened with deportation; with at least 83 cases of actual unlawful deportations by the Home Office.
The vast majority of those affected had been born British subjects who arrived in the UK before 1973, as members of the “Windrush generation”. The deliberate targeting of this generation resulted in families being torn apart, and affected the health and wellbeing of mostly elderly individuals, some of whom have died before being granted reprieve or an apology.
The impact of the scandal has also extended to migrants from other countries and regions, in this case the Indian subcontinent, another Commonwealth nation.
In June of this year, an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that the there was no evidence to show the Home Office’s hostile environment policy is achieving its aims of reducing illegal immigration.
According to The Independent, lawyers and campaigners have said it is a “damning indictment” of the immigration system that no assessment had been made of the policy in light of the Windrush scandal, and the multiple reviews that have since been published criticising the approach.
Campaign for Gurmit Kaur
Gurmit Kaur Sahota – known simply as Gurmit Kaur – lives in Smethwick in the West Midlands and has been residing in the UK for nearly eleven years.
An actively engaged member of her local community, Ms Kaur is being asked to leave the country due to a lack of legal immigration paperwork.
According to letters that have been sent to her by Capita Business Services on behalf of the UK Visas and Immigration department (formerly the UK Border Agency), she must leave the country or may be “forcibly removed”.
The letter states: “There are only a small minority of people living in the UK illegally. Despite numerous efforts to contact you by letter and telephone you have not responded and our records show that you have not yet left the United Kingdom.
“If you fail to respond we will have to refer your case onto the UK Border Agency to consider taking further action to secure your removal from the United Kingdom.
“In addition, anyone without a right to remain who does not voluntarily leave the United Kingdom could face severe penalties under the 1971 Immigration Act.”
The letter goes on to state Ms Kaur may lose access to NHS healthcare and have her details shared with regulatory authorities to prevent her from using financial services such as mobile phone companies and banks.
Critics of the hostile environment policy have hit out at the Home Office for criminalising long-term upstanding members of society like Ms Kaur by declaring them “illegal” rather than simply undocumented; and for using bullying tactics and fear in their approach to resolve her residency status.
National charity Migrant Voice is backing Gurmit Kaur’s campaign and has launched a petition calling for her to be allowed to stay in the UK. A spokesperson for the organisation said:
“Gurmit Kaur came to the UK in 2009 and Smethwick has been home to her ever since.
“She has no family to turn to in the UK and no family to return to in India, so the local Sikh community of Smethwick have adopted her.
“Gurmit applied to stay but has been refused even though she has no family to return to in Panjab, India.
“Gurmit is a very kind woman, even though she has nothing she is still generous and will always give what she can, when she can. Most of her days are spent volunteering at the local Gurdwara (temple).
“Gurmit is an asset and a kind auntie to Smethwick. We want her to stay here. Smethwick is home!”
Gurmit Kaur’s case and story was shared at a Black Lives Matter protest in Smethwick’s Victoria Park on Saturday (July 18) where attendees came together to discuss systemic racism and discrimination against black and ethnic minority groups.
Organised by Stand Up To Racism Birmingham, the rally generated support for Kaur’s plight, with several activists displaying ‘We Are All Gurmit Kaur’ signs as protesters cheered her on.
True to her spirit of community food service, known in Sikhism as “Langar Seva”, Gurmit joined in and gave out fruit to protesters in solidarity with the cause.
Birmingham human rights campaigner Xi’an Loves met Gurmit Kaur at the Smethwick protest and immediately backed her campaign to stay in the country.
“While I was there I met a beautiful Auntie who was handing out fruit to protesters. Auntie’s name is Gurmit Kaur, she is 75 years old and her story is heartbreaking.
“Over recent years Gurmit Kaur has suffered personal trauma and has lost everything including her home and family. To make matters worse she has now been informed by the Home Office that she has to return home to India, but her real home is here in Smethwick where she has lived since 2009 and has made a new life. She has no family to return to in Panjab.
“Until yesterday Gurmit was a stranger me, and despite all the hardship she is going through she was doing Seva; giving out fruit to the Black Lives Matter protesters in the park. This was a small simple gesture defining what is good in the world.
“Today I am calling Gurmit Kaur my Massi Ji, she is our Auntie and she needs our help to ensure she stays in Smethwick.
“It’s symbolic that the Sikh community welcomed Malcolm X to Smethwick all those years ago and now our movement welcomes Gurmit. She really touched my heart; she has nothing yet was giving out fruit to people on the protest.
“I guess this is her carrying out one of the tenants of her faith called Seva where the Sikh community provides Langar to others.”
Simon Foster, Labour’s candidate to fight next year’s election of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (WMPCC), also took part in the protest.
Foster, who is backing the Black Lives Matter movement and attended last month’s We Matter equality march through Birmingham city centre, said he joined the protest “to support Black communities in the West Midlands”.
“We must challenge structural social and economic inequality, bias, disproportionality, discrimination and racism.”
Quoting iconic American novelist and anti-racism activist James Baldwin, Foster added, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Sandwell Labour councillor Ahmad Bostan, representing the Abbey ward, was also present and committed his support to Ms Kaur’s campaign.
Campaigners have said they will continue protests until the Home Office does a u-turn and allows Ms Kaur to stay in the country.
Responding to this story and Ms Kaur’s immigration status, the Home Office told I Am Birmingham they will look into the case.
“Ms Kaur Sahota has made no attempt to regularise her stay or voluntarily leave the country since 2010.”
Representatives for the Home Office added they were unaware of any contact from their department with Ms Kaur since 2013 but said they were eager to “look into her case” when contact is made.
They clarified that Ms Kaur had entered the UK on 15 July 2009 on a multi visit visa, which was valid until 10 January 2010. After this, Ms Kaur then applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain which was refused in June 2010.
They accepted that the letter from Capita was sent to Ms Kaur, but noted it was from 2013. They explained their contract with Capita ended in 2016 and that they “no longer engage with individuals in this way”.
Update: This article was updated on Tuesday 21 July 2020, with an added response from the Home Office.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested the correspondence threatening Gurmit Kaur with deportation was sent directly by the Home Office. While Ms Kaur’s case is being dealt with by the Home Office, the communication was sent by UK Visas and Immigration (formerly the UK Border Agency) and their former contractor Capita.