A History of British Immigration Policy; Constructing the ‘Enemy Within’

We have a treat for you today. This article was written by two of our members – Jovan Rydder and Mathew Nicolson – and was published in Retrospectthe University of Edinburgh’s History, Classics, and Archaeology journal. It’s an interesting read and we’re very pleased that Retrospect have kindly given permission for us to post it on our blog for you to enjoy. The theme ties in nicely with our Winter Ceilidh which we are holding on 26 November 2015 in aid of the Refugee Survival Trust. We hope you can come alone for what promises to be an excellent night of dancing!


A History of British Immigration Policy; Constructing the ‘Enemy Within’

     “I tried to get into a lifeboat, but, when it was launched, it was nearly empty, and soon the stream and waves pushed it far.  The other lifeboats were already far away.  Many people had jumped into the sea and a good deal of them had already died.  When I realised… that there was not much time left, I got down calmly into the sea, and swam away from the ship, which was quickly sinking.  She had turned on the right side, her bow was submerged, people were on the decks poured into the sea, and all of a sudden she sank with a terrible noise.  The sea was covered with oil… with wrecks, and pieces of wood.”

One would be forgiven for mistaking this as a contemporary news account of a tragic event in the Mediterranean Sea.  Instead, these are the words of a passenger on the SS Arandora Star, sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland in July 1940.  Similar to the growing list of disasters in the Mediterranean over recent years as people seek to enter Europe, the sinking of the Arandora Star resulted in a sudden about-face of British public opinion on government policy, in this case the deportation of German and Italian nationals to the colonies.  In the context of what seemed to be an imminent German invasion from the spring of 1940, widespread paranoia began to frame the approximately 20,000 German nationals residing in Britain as an infiltrating ‘fifth column’ undermining the British state. The government began a policy of interning the bulk of this population, sometimes resulting in deportation.  And yet, pressured by the outcry following the Arandora Star’s sinking, the British government was forced to retract this policy.  Within a year, most interned foreign nationals had been released.  While the sense of crisis had diminished by 1941 due to Britain’s achievement of air superiority over the German Luftwaffe, and thus lessened fears of this ‘fifth column,’ it is unlikely the government would have acted as swiftly without popular pressure forcing its hand.

While this is one of a few examples of a public opinion and policy marked by compassion, these are the notable exceptions in a history of British immigration policy that has normalised extreme treatment of those labelled “outsiders”. Anti-outsider sentiment has been fuelled by political and media rhetoric characterising a specific group as “un-British” or representing foreign values, which in turn has fuelled waves of ever-harsher policies towards them. The targets have changed over time: where Irish and Lithuanian immigrants felt the brunt of this characterisation in the early 19th century, Britain’s Jews were turned on in the 1930s.  Today it is Muslims who bear the brunt of most anti-migrant rhetoric.  Immigration acts as an effective scapegoat for a country’s problems, particularly during a period of economic crisis – it is no coincidence that anti-migrant sentiment flared up throughout the Long Depression of the 1870s, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the recent global financial crisis.

Only a skim over British legislation on immigration is needed to appreciate the relationship between public paranoia and government policy.  The 1905 Aliens Act empowered immigration officers to exclude ‘undesirables’ such as the poor or the mentally ill; the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act allowed for the deportation of people fleeing religious persecution; the 1920 Aliens Order granted the Home Secretary power to deport anyone “not conducive to the public good”; authorisation for widespread internment and deportation during both world wars.  In contrast, the post-war years of growth and prosperity are marked by their lack of mainstream anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, which lasted exactly as long as the feeling of economic security.  During the economic shocks of the late twentieth century came renewed anti-immigration sentiment: the 1971 British Nationality Act, restricting the right of Commonwealth citizens to reside in the UK; the 1988 Immigration Act ensuring fast-track deportations; the UK Borders Act 2007, giving immigration officers police-like powers; and so on – there is not space in this article to give a full list.  Worth noting is the increasing rate of such legislation, with six major Acts during the last Labour government alone.

As explored in the case of the Arandora Star, detaining non-British nationals had become accepted policy during the world wars.  In theory, similar detention during peacetime had been codified in law since 1920, but it was only following the 1971 Immigration Act that temporary detention of immigrants and asylum seekers until their status was confirmed became commonplace.  By the 1990s this had become a key feature of the UK’s border policy, now including purpose-built internment facilities.  Anti-terror legislation passed in the aftermath of 9/11 has furthered this trend, removing the time limit people can be detained for.  Jean-Claude Paye (2005) has argued that this constitutes the end of habeas corpus, the right of a detained individual for their detention to be examined by a court of law.  That such a long-established tradition has gradually been overturned over the last century with virtually no public outcry indicates the popular enthusiasm for controlling “the enemy within” at any cost.

The history of British immigration policy is not uplifting reading, never mind having to live it. But exceptional instances of compassion, such as around the Arandora Star or the recent shift in public perception of refugees, are positive signs that we can build on. This compassionate energy needs to create long-term change in immigration and asylum policy, but we cannot forget that there are people affected by our system right now, who need support right now. Take a look at the “Refugees Welcome in the UK” Facebook page to see all the different ways you can help right now, whether by donating your time, money or old clothes, or by pressuring your MPs to do better.

Mathew Nicolson & Jovan Rydder

Amnesty International Society

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