What is the true story behind Windrush scandal drama Sitting in Limbo – and who is Anthony Bryan?

Feature-length BBC One drama Sitting in Limbo is closely based on the shocking real-life story of Anthony Bryan, the screenwriter's own brother.

Sitting in Limbo - BBC and real life

Sitting in Limbo is the kind of drama that will make you feel sick and angry – and the kind of drama you’ll remember for a long time. Starring Patrick Robinson, Nadine Marshall, Pippa Bennett-Warner and CJ Beckford, it puts the spotlight on an individual whose life was changed forever by the Windrush scandal. 

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Who is Anthony Bryan?

Anthony Bryan is a victim of the Windrush scandal, and also the brother of screenwriter (and novelist) Stephen S Thompson, who has used this one-off BBC drama as a way to tell the story of what his family went through.

Anthony arrived legally in the UK from Jamaica at the age of eight – but 50 years later, when he applied for a UK passport so he could go abroad for the first time to visit his ageing mother, he was shocked to be informed by the Home Office that he was in the UK illegally.

The real Anthony Bryan outside his home
The real Anthony Bryan outside his home (Getty)

He could no longer work as a painter and decorator; he could not use the NHS, or claim a pension; he was imprisoned in a detention centre; and he was in grave danger of being deported to Jamaica and separated from his partner Janet, his children, and his seven grandchildren.

Anthony was heavily involved when he was working on the script, Stephen told the BBC – even though it was difficult for him to speak about. “It’s not easy to dredge that stuff up again,” the writer said. “But without that emotional content, it just wouldn’t be the same. So that was the most difficult thing for me because they had to relive it, or at least talk about it in a very explicit way, whereas like I said, they’re not really those types. So even though he’s my brother, I guess we kind of had to build that trust as we went along.”

What is the Windrush scandal?

The “Windrush scandal” is the name given to a scandal that erupted in 2018 when it emerged that the Home Office had been wrongly detaining hundreds of people, denying them their legal rights, threatening them with deportation, and in some cases even deporting them back to countries they had left more than half a century ago.

Those affected had actually been born British subjects in the British Empire or in the Commonwealth, and had travelled to the UK from a number of Caribbean countries as members of the “Windrush generation” – named after the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants in 1948. Between then and 1971, half a million (or so) people came to the UK from the Caribbean. Many of them arrived to fill labour shortages, including in the NHS.

But under the “hostile environment policy” instituted by Theresa May as Home Secretary and promoted by her successor Amber Rudd, these people were wrongly targeted for deportation by the Home Office.

Patrick Robinson in Sitting In Limbo
Patrick Robinson in Sitting In Limbo (BBC)

Many had been children when they arrived, and so had travelled on a parent’s or an adult relative’s passport; as a result they did not have travel documents, which was no issue at the time – but suddenly became a major problem decades down the line.  Now the Home Office declared that the onus was on these members of the Windrush generation to prove they were not illegal immigrants, or they would be deported back to the countries where they were born. (And as The Guardian uncovered in 2018, the Home Office had made this task even harder by actually destroying thousands of landing card slips recording arrival dates.)

In the meantime, the hundreds of people affected – many of them around retirement age or older – had their lives thrown into chaos. They were turned out of jobs and barred from employment, denied access to their pensions and to the NHS, forbidden from renting, detained in prison-like immigration centres, offered “voluntary repatriation”, and threatened with deportation at any moment. Some were forcibly deported.

As the epilogue to Sitting in Limbo puts it, in 2018 “the Home Office admitted that they were responsible for wrongfully detaining at least 850 people between 2012 and 2017.

“In 2019, 83 members of the Windrush generation were confirmed to have been deported, despite having the right to live in the UK. At least 13 of these people died before the Home Offie acknowledged the mistake.”

The full number of those affected is unknown. Additionally, a number of long-term UK residents were wrongly refused entry to the UK – where they were entitled to live.

What happened to Anthony Bryan?

As we see in the drama, for Anthony Bryan this whole crisis hit like a bolt from the blue.

After five decades of living in the UK, Anthony had decided to finally go abroad; he was planning a visit to see his elderly mother, who had returned to Jamaica. So in 2015 he applied for his British passport – and that should have been that.

But instead, he received a letter from Capita (the Home Office’s immigration enforcement contractor) informing him that he had no right to stay in the UK. It also informed him that his employer could be fined £10,000 for employing an “illegal worker”, so his boss was forced to let him go.

That was the start of a painful and devastating three-year battle in which the Home Office had all the power and everything was stacked against him.

Anthony Bryan is questioned by an immigration officer in Sitting In Limbo
Anthony Bryan is questioned by an immigration officer in Sitting In Limbo (BBC)

Having come to the UK when he was just eight, Anthony had actually travelled (legally) on his older brother’s passport. But now the Home Office wanted him to prove that he had arrived exactly when he said he had – and to prove that he’d been here ever since. But his school records had been destroyed and he did not have access to the passport he’d arrived on. The pile of evidence he was able to present, including national insurance records and tax records, was deemed insufficient.

In 2016, officers arrived at his Edmonton home early on a Sunday morning with a battering ram and pounded on his door. When he opened it, they took him to a detention centre in Dorset where they held him for more than two weeks before suddenly letting him go. He later told The Guardian: “They don’t tell you why they are holding you and they don’t tell you why they let you out. You feel so depressed.”

In November 2017, after an appeal was rejected, he was taken to another detention centre. This time the Home Office staff got as far as booking him onto a flight to Jamaica – and only a last-minute intervention by an immigration lawyer stopped the deportation.

It was at this point that the story of the Windrush scandal started to break. The Guardian interviewed Bryan and ran a major story about his case; other shockingly similar stories were coming to light (including that of Paulette Wilson).

At the time, The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman wrote: “The Home Office said Bryan was ‘not currently subject to removal action’, adding that he had failed so far to provide the necessary evidence to show a lawful right to remain here.”

But as the truth about what had been happening to the Windrush generation was exposed, the Home Office soon reversed its position. Anthony gave evidence at a hearing in the House of Commons, agreed to television interviews, and even featured in documentary. 

And in 2018, after receiving his British passport, Anthony went to visit his mother in Jamaica.

Anthony Bryan with members of the Windrush generation and David Lammy MP after the story was exposed (Getty)
MPs meet with members of the Windrush generation after the scandal comes to light (Getty)

What’s happening with the Windrush scandal in 2020?

According to the show’s epilogue, “the Home Office revealed that by February 2020 there were 1108 applicants to the Windrush Compensation Scheme, of which only 36 had been granted any money. As of May 2020, Anthony has yet to receive any compensation.”

A damning report was also released in March 2020, but – with coronavirus dominating the headlines – it has not received widespread attention. The Windrush Lessons Learned Review reports on the independent inquiry conducted by Wendy Williams (an inspector of constabulary), and it is pretty scathing about the Home Office’s handling of these cases, concluding that the government department showed “ignorance and thoughtlessness”, leading to devastating outcomes that were “foreseeable and avoidable”.

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