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As the UK is hosting Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) where leaders gathered in London and Windsor to “address the shared global challenges we face and agree actions on how to create a better future for all”, the country is facing a serious issue where thousand of people who arrived in the UK, in the first wave of Commonwealth immigration decades ago as children have been told they are in the UK illegally and face being threatened with deportation.

Despite living and working in the UK for decades, many of the so-called Windrush generation are now being told they are here illegally because of a lack of official paperwork.

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Over the past five months, as this scandal gradually unfolded, the Guardian has documented numerous cases of retirement-age UK residents who have described how the Home Office’s refusal to believe that they are in the UK legally has ruined their lives. Many have cried as they explained how upsetting it is to be classed as an illegal immigrant after more than 50 years in the UK, studying, working, bringing up children in a country they believed to be their own.

The extent of official Home Office heartlessness has been staggering, so it is encouraging to hear the home secretary, Amber Rudd, acknowledge belatedly that the treatment meted out by her department has been “appalling”, and to recognise that the Home Office has become “too concerned with policy”, causing it “lose sight of the individual”. Amber Rudd said they would be helped to attain required documents for free. Labour’s David Lammy said it was a “day of national shame”.

The Windrush generation gets its name from the ship, the Empire Windrush, that brought workers from the West Indies to Britain in 1948. Under the 1971 Immigration Act, all Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain.

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However, the Home Office did not keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue any paperwork confirming it, meaning it is difficult for the individuals to now prove they are in the UK legally.

Changes to immigration law in 2012, which requires people to have documentation to work, rent a property or access benefits, including healthcare, has highlighted the issue and left people fearful about their status.

According to the Guardian report Theresa May was called on at prime minister’s questions to look into the case of Albert Thompson (not his real name) who is still being refused free NHS treatment by the Royal Marsden Hospital, five months after his radiotherapy was due to start. She showed no sensitivity to the case and refused to intervene, stating that Thompson needed to “evidence his settled status in the UK”. Thompson, a Jamaican-born son of a nurse who has lived and worked in the UK since he was a teenager, 44 years ago, remains profoundly worried about the impact that the delayed treatment is having on his health.

This is an extraordinary government U-turn. It is remarkable that officials have decided they want to be sensitive today, when for months they have been holding an obstinately firm line on this issue.

Repeatedly, when the Guardian has contacted the Home Office to highlight cases of people who have lost their jobs, their homes, or been unable to get passports to travel to visit dying parents, officials have indicated that the fault lies with the individual, for failing to provide enough evidence of their right to be here.