Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Watch of the Week: Sitting in Limbo

Cara Lee offers us the first installment to our new series Watch of the Week with a timely reminder of the Windrush scandal

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Image Credit: BBC One

Naively, I assumed ‘limbo’ was just the name of a children’s game to test flexibility.  When researching this article though, I was interested to find that ‘limbo’ derives from Roman Catholic theology, where it denotes a place like Purgatory, somewhere between Heaven and Hell.

Sitting in Limbo is the name of a recent BBC drama, based on the Windrush scandal.  The phrase depicts uncertainty and fear. It suggests a place forgotten; a transitional state, but nevertheless a state in which, temporarily at least, one is trapped.

Most of us are familiar with what the Windrush scandal is but as with many aspects of British politics, individual stories are swept under the rug. This BBC TV Film shows the effects of such anti-migrant legislation and it is startling to realise that these events occurred so recently in history.

Last month Sitting in Limbo aired, following the story of Anthony Bryan (Patrick Robinson), a UK citizen caught up in this disgraceful scandal.  Over the course of the drama, he is detained twice by the Home Office and threatened with deportation, despite him having  lived in the UK for 50 years.

Captions and political footage contextualise the first minute, which state “in 2007, the Labour government first used the term ‘hostile environment’ when discussing policies regarding illegal migrant workers.  In 2012, David Cameron’s coalition government formed a ministerial team that became known as the ‘Hostile Environment Working Group’.

Written by Stephen Thompson – Anthony Bryan’s brother – Sitting in Limbo is based on countless people’s experiences, Thompson’s and Bryan’s included.  Whilst the work is fictional, the experiences are not. Anthony’s treatment has been emulated up and down the country for the last who knows how many years.

The ‘Windrush Generation’ encompasses  more than half a million people who moved to the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971.  Britain was recovering from the Second World War, and adverts were put out to address the labour shortage; enticed by promises of opportunities in Britain, the first 492 migrants disembarked the HMT Empire Windrush on 22nd June 1948.

Problems first came to light in 2017 when it was revealed people who arrived aboard the Empire Windrush were being deemed as “illegal immigrants”. The immigration policies fronted by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary form the Hostile Environment that Bryan falls victim to.  Speeches given by David Cameron and Theresa May are interlaced, introducing the Immigration Bill which May declared, “will make it easier to get rid of people with no right to be here”.  Here she likens migrants almost to trash, something to dispose of and forget about – which is very much telling of Britain’s anti-foreigner message.

Sitting in Limbo follows Anthony through two detainments and his efforts to prove his rightful citizenship.  Bryan’s right to remain in the UK was put under review, and his rights to work, use the NHS and access benefits were stripped.  Unless citizens from the Empire Windrush could prove they were residents with documentation – made next to impossible by the government’s legislation – they faced being detained and deported.

It is fitting that Sitting in Limbo was aired during Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.  It invalidates those calls of “but the UK isn’t racist!” that are bandied around all too often at the moment.  The UK is racist, and you only need to watch this drama to see it.

The government has said that upwards of 160 people may have been wrongly deported due to the Hostile Environment measures put in place.  A compensation scheme was established for those affected by the Home Office’s treatment; 1,275 people applied for compensation by the end of March, but it was recently revealed only 60 of these applicants had actually received any compensation.

At one point, Anthony asks “What’s the point?  What am I fighting for?  They’ve made it clear they don’t want me here.”  For me, this was the most heart-breaking and important point of the story.  When a country you’ve lived in and called home for fifty years betrays you and refuses to call you its citizen, what then?  The targeted discrimination he and so many others face shatter lives and homes, and it is purely due to Britain’s ingrained racial hierarchies.

Thompson said he did not intend the drama to be overtly political, but it cannot exist without a political dimension to it. Sitting in Limbo exposes how the British government has continued to alter the discourse of race relations throughout history, crucial in revealing the racism ingrained into British society.  Most of us will be aware of the Windrush scandal but Sitting in Limbo is integral in showing how contemporary politics deliberately places hurdles in the way of migrants, and how white authorities have politicised ‘home’ into something only white people can possess and feel in Britain.

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