Britain’s racist immigration history

Poster advertising public meeting in 1902 calling for restrictions on the immigration of 'destitute foreigners'. In 1905 Britain introduced the Aliens Regisration Act.

In response to Prime Minister David Cameron’s heartless stance in the face of the deaths of migrants, many commentators – from the Green Party to his own backbench MPs and Lords – have cited Britain’s ‘proud tradition’ of providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing persecution. NICKI JAMESON looks at the real history of Britain’s immigration laws.

Fleeing persecution – facing racism

Until the 20th century there were no laws regulating immigration to Britain. The first British immigration law was the 1905 Aliens Act, which was specifically designed to limit the numbers of impoverished East European Jews fleeing pogroms who could seek sanctuary in Britain. The Act was accompanied by a media campaign in which newspaper headlines railed against a threatened invasion of ‘dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner[s]’ (Manchester Evening Chronicle).

Further Aliens Restrictions Acts followed in 1914 and 1919, and in 1938 Britain introduced visa requirements for nationals of Germany or Austria. This directly reduced the possibility of seeking asylum for Jews fleeing Nazism.

Bringing in workers

In the 1950s Britain encouraged immigration from countries it had earlier colonised and plundered in the name of Empire. Citizens of the Commonwealth were exempt from the controls then in force and Caribbean and Asian workers were invited to Britain to do low-paid jobs. However, there was an almost immediate racist backlash, culminating in the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Trinidadian communist Claudia Jones, then editor of the West Indian Gazette in London, was among those who spoke out against the Act, saying it reflected the government’s fear of the ‘unity of coloured and white workers’.

The 1962 Act was followed by a further Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968 and then by the Immigration Act of 1971, which remains the cornerstone of all subsequent legislation.

Building Fortress Europe

By the 1980s the government had put in place a series of measures to regulate the immigration of ‘Commonwealth citizens’, including changing the status of their British passports in order to remove their right to settle here. It then turned its attention back to refugees fleeing war and conflict, introducing visa controls for those fleeing Sri Lanka in 1985 and Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in 1986, in moves reminiscent of the earlier legislation to keep out persecuted Jews.

The 1990s saw the introduction of a series of laws tightening restrictions on immigration further and further. Legislation in Britain echoed provision across western Europe as ‘Fortress Europe’ was constructed and prepared to repel outsiders. Conservative Prime Minister John Major urged a strong perimeter fence around Europe: ‘We must not be wide open to all comers simply because Paris, Rome or London seem more attractive than Bombay or Algiers.’ He urged Europeans to guard against a tidal wave of ‘illegal immigrants, drug pushers, criminals and terrorists’.

Labour ‘manages migration’ for capitalism

The Labour Party entered government in Britain in 1997 and for the first three years continued the previous Tory government’s general stance of restricting and reducing all forms of immigration and, in particular, attacking ‘economic migrants’, accusing those making asylum claims of secretly coming here to find work and improve their living standards.

However, in September 2000, Immigration Minister Barbara Roche announced a fundamental change to Labour’s approach. In a speech entitled ‘UK migration in a global economy’, delivered to a conference organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research and sponsored by the British Bankers Association, Roche set out the government’s plans to introduce a class-based immigration policy to suit the needs of the capitalist market.

The ground had been prepared for this for several months. On 19 June 2000, the day after 58 Chinese people died whilst being smuggled into Britain in a tomato lorry, The Guardian called for an ‘immigration policy based on ... economic needs rather than foreign policy objectives or asylum sympathies’. Its home affairs editor dismissed as of ‘marginal importance’ the argument against depriving poor countries of skilled workers so they can service the rich nations, citing the global value of remittances sent to poor nations by workers in rich ones as $65 billion a year.

Subsequently, in 2005 Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced a four-tier work permit scheme for workers from outside the EU. This scheme was always difficult to navigate, but almost as soon as it was introduced, it became subject to a panoply of changes, restrictions and alterations, which continue to proliferate today. At the same time, the Workers Registration Scheme, which operated until 2011, was brought in to police migrants from the former socialist countries of eastern Europe whose citizens now had freedom of movement within the EU.

In its drive to render migration subservient to the dictates of capitalism, the Labour government introduced more legislation than any administration before or since:

  • Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 removed benefits from asylum seekers and created the National Asylum Service which dispersed asylum seekers around the country and limited the benefits they could receive.
  • Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 introduced an English test and citizenship exam for immigrants and measures against ‘sham marriages’.
  • Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 reduced avenues for appeal, made it a criminal offence to destroy travel documents and cut off support to ‘failed asylum seekers’.
  • Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 brought in points-based work visa system, limited the right of appeal for anyone refused a visa and introduced on-the-spot fines of £2,000, payable by employers for each employee without legal status.
  • UK Borders Act 2007 introduced automatic deportation for foreign nationals imprisoned for more than one year, gave immigration officers police-like powers, and brought in biometric ID cards for non-EU immigrants.

When Labour came to power, there was one dedicated immigration prison; by the time it left office, there were 12 Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), as well as a network of Short Term Holding Facilities at airports and reporting centres. Thousands of men and women and hundreds of children were detained, sometimes for months on end, often in breach of international treaties on children’s rights.

Labour also implemented the now discredited ‘fast-track’system which gave asylum seekers just 11 days to make out their case. In 2008 Immigration Minister Phil Woolas boasted that the government was deporting one person every eight minutes and in 2009 Home Secretary Jacqui Smith hammered the message home, saying: ‘The message is clear – whether you’re a visa overstayer, a foreign criminal or a failed asylum seeker, the UK Border Agency is determined to track you down and remove you from Britain.’

ConDems and Cons – immigration and austerity

In 2010 the Conservative and LibDem Coalition took power and began to attack the British working class in the name of austerity, hacking away at the living standards of the poor, destroying services and state welfare provision that had been put in place during the post-war boom. Further attacks on migrants were intrinsic to this, both in that they were hard hit by cuts in social support, English as a Second Language classes, translation facilities etc, and via crude divide-and-rule measures and rhetoric designed to divert blame for the crisis from the banks and government on to soft targets, such as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘foreign benefit scroungers’ and ‘health tourists’.

In 2013, amidst a climate of increasing state and media racism typified by government-sponsored vans featuring anti-immigrant ‘Go home!’ adverts Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the Bill that then became the Immigration Act 2014. In a BBC interview, May boasted of how living in Britain would now become ‘tougher for illegal immigrants’. Most of the Act does not relate directly to illegal immigration but this did not prevent her using the word ‘illegal’ every time she said ‘immigrant’ and ‘hardworking’ every time she said ‘taxpayer’.

The 2014 Act made statutory procedures already in place for checking the residence status of people applying for driving licences or opening bank accounts and for scrutinising marriage applications to see if they are ‘sham’. Alongside this, new measures required private landlords and doctors’ surgeries to check the immigration status of prospective tenants/ patients. The Act also speeded up the administrative removal of people with no legal immigration status and gave immigration officers increased powers to use force.

Fight racism! Fight deportations!

In the current ‘refugee crisis’ the government is trying once again to make a false separation between good ‘refugees’ and bad ‘economic migrants’, while in practice obstructing the entry of both, in ways other than those which fit the capitalist agenda. In an imperialist nation like Britain, which wages war and exploits oppressed peoples around the world, all forms of immigration control are, by their very nature, racist and imposed in the interests of capital, irrespective of whether they target refugees and asylum seekers, ‘economic migrants’, students or any other type of migrant. Nor can anyone who comes to Britain or any other wealthy nation from a country ravaged by imperialist plunder be dismissed as an ‘economic migrant’, rather than a ‘real refugee’. Imperialist oppression is both political and economic and fleeing it always has a political dimension.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! campaigns against all British immigration controls and opposes all detentions and deportations.

FRFI 247 October/November 2015


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