Metro: Likkle but Tallawah: How tiny activist Paulette Wilson fought a big fight

Likkle but Tallawah: How tiny activist Paulette Wilson fought a big fight

As a member of the Windrush generation, Paulette arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1968 (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/SSPL/Getty Images)

Paulette Wilson was just 64 when she fell asleep and never woke up. Some believe she died of a broken heart.

The mum and grandmother, who unexpectedly passed two years ago, was one of hundreds of British citizens whose autumn years were marred by fear that they would be torn from their homes and families, and sent to live in a land they had never known.

As a member of the Windrush generation, Paulette arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1968. She grew up in Britain, raised her family and worked hard her whole life – also carrying out volunteer work – only to be told in her sixties that she didn’t belong here.

It was in 2015, when Paulette received a letter from the Home Office, explaining that she was an illegal immigrant and would be deported to Jamaica. Her housing and health care benefits were stopped, she was denied the right to seek work, and that year, she lost her flat.

Paulette said at the time: ‘37 years of paying taxes and I get a letter saying I’m an illegal immigrant. How can I be illegal? I don’t understand that word at all.’

The Windrush generation arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1973. Named after the HMT Empire Windrush ship which brought them, many took up jobs in the nascent NHS and other sectors affected by Britain’s post-war labour shortage.

The Caribbean was at the time part of the British commonwealth, so those who arrived were automatically British subjects and free to permanently live and work in the UK. Their passports were stamped ‘indefinite leave to remain’.

However, many of them fell victim to the Government’s 2012 ‘Hostile Environment’ policy, designed to force illegal immigrants out of the country. People like Paulette were detained, deported and had their legal rights denied.

It is not known how many people were affected by the scandal, but a 2021 Investigation into the Windrush Compensation Scheme by the National Audit Office found that between 11,500 and 15,000 people could have been eligible, meaning thousands faced the fear of losing their homes, jobs or of being detained and deported.

Paulette was incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood detention centre before being sent to the immigration removal centre at Heathrow. She was rescued at the last minute when her MP, Emma Reynolds, stepped in.

The internment, Paulette told the Guardian newspaper, was the worst experience of her life. After her release in 2017, she said: ‘I felt like I didn’t exist. I wondered what was going to happen to me. All I did was cry, thinking of my daughter and granddaughter; thinking that I wasn’t going to see them again. I couldn’t eat or sleep; still now I can’t eat and sleep properly.’

It was an experience that profoundly affected Paulette, and she went on to help others in the same position, taking on a role of campaigner, along with her daughter Natalie Barnes.

It was during this campaign that she met and befriended social commentator, campaigner and cultural historian Patrick Vernon in 2017, who later said that the imprisonment broke Paulette’s spirit.