by Chris Jarvis 

Content warning: this article mentions xenophobia and racism

Last week, reporting and rhetoric on the ongoing migration crisis reached new lows. The Daily Mail, The Express and others ran inflammatory stories first casting doubt over whether or not child refugees were children after all and later calling on them to carry out dental checks on asylum seekers to ascertain their age, irrespective of the ethical abhorrence and scientific inadequacy of such a policy.

How has it come to this? How, as a society, have we got to the point where people fleeing conflict, living in makeshift camps and trying desperately to find a better life receive this as their welcome to our country, are referred to in these terms? When did we stop being a nation that offered help and support to those in need, a nation that welcomed migrants, a nation with cities built on the principles of multi-culturalism and melting pot? Don’t we have a long and proud history of granting refuge to those who need it?

Anti-migrant hate crime rose by 41% after Britain voted to leave the EU.  Polling by Yougov suggests 35% of people stated they voted Brexit because of migration, the second most prevalent reason. Immigration, whether we like it or not, is well and truly on the agenda.

The impact of this is more than numbers. The impact is on real people in the real world.

There’s a cruel and unpleasant irony in all this. Watching the debate around migration unfold, there’s one thing that the media, politicians and vast amounts of the public are clear on. For too long, there hasn’t been a debate on migration. There hasn’t been a space for people’s concerns to be aired. Politicians have forced migrants on the public while threatening them with accusations of racism should they complain.

The farce of these claims is that their inverse is the reality. Britain has been obsessed with migration, and it’s not a new phenomenon either.

Throughout the 20th Century, parliament and government established law after law, regulation after regulation and initiative after initiative to stop, regulate or deter people from different nations or ethnicities from entering the United Kingdom. In 1905, the Aliens Act — the forefather to modern immigration controls — was designed to prevent Jewish migration into the country, and required registration on entry to the country and allowed authorities to turn away certain migrants. Previous legislation, such as the 1530 Egyptians Act and 1793 Aliens Act sought to similarly control and prohibit specific groups of migrants — gypsies and French respectively, but the 1905 Act was significant in precipitating future migration controls.

the Aliens Act — the forefather to modern immigration controls — was designed to prevent Jewish migration into the country

Unsurprisingly, during the First World War, aggressive migration restrictions were enacted. Legislation in 1914 granted the power for police to force migrants over 16 year olds to register with  them, allowed the Home Secretary to deport people in the name of ‘the public good’ and required for the very first time every person entering the country to produce evidence of their identity.

Additional restrictions were introduced in the inter-war period but the preamble to and onset of World War II and the refugee crisis sparked by the war itself, the persecution and holocaust of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe and the preceding Spanish Civil War through the 1930s and 40s saw a renewed focus on migration. Britain took 70,000 Jewish refugees in the run up to the outbreak of war and 100,000 during it. Much has been made of the welcoming nature of the British people and state at this time.

Much has been made of the welcoming nature of the British people and state at this time.

Unfortunately, the reality is at least a little different. Roughly 60 million Europeans became refugees during the war and in the run-up half a million Jewish refugees were not admitted to Britain. Immigration controls were introduced between the UK and Republic of Ireland due to the latter’s neutrality in the war. People found in the UK from enemy nations could be repatriated. Exit controls were placed on people leaving the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the form of modern migration into the UK began to take shape, as did many of the attitudes, rhetoric and policies we would recognise as prevalent today. With the passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act, citizens of states in both the former and existing territories in the British Empire were granted the right to citizenship in Britain. Ostensibly, this was due to the role people from across the Empire played in the war effort, but in reality was down to a worker shortage that required a substantial expansion of the British workforce. Recruitment adverts were pushed throughout the colonies, particularly in the Caribbean, where people were encouraged to migrate to ‘the motherland’ where there would be jobs and wealth a plenty.

(Jamaican immigrants arriving on the Windrush, via AF 'Migrant City')

(The infamous migrant carrying ship, Windrush, via AF ‘Migrant City‘)

Windrush — the now infamous migrant carrying boat — landed on British shores in 1948, a symbolic moment where the pattern of major migration into the UK shifted. These weren’t the refugees or the displaced of the 1930s and early 40s. They weren’t the wealthy migrants or the transient travellers slipping through porous borders of the early 20th century either. Rather, this was a movement of what we would now call ‘economic migrants’ — people moving to seek work and find prosperity.

this was a movement of what we would now call ‘economic migrants’

Prior to Britain entering the European Economic Community, a substantial portion of migration into the UK was of this ilk —people emigrating from the British Empire or the recently decolonised areas of the commonwealth. Trickles of migrants from Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean continued, there were substantial flows from India and later Hong Kong, the rule of Idi Amin and Jomo Kenyatta saw the arrival of both Kenyan and Ugandan Asians.

What developed over this period was an increasing toxicity and hostility towards those who arrived in the UK from the media, the public and the political class. Just ten years after Windrush moored there were race riots in Notting Hill. Conservative election candidates in Birmingham put out literature in 1964 stating ‘if you want a n– for a neighbour, vote Labour,’ a ticket on which they won the parliamentary seat. Media reports ran wild about the impact migration was having on public services, local communities and society (sound familiar?). Owners of guesthouses put up signs that read ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs.

(Notting Hill race riots, via BBC)

(Notting Hill race riots, via BBC)

But the most notorious of the anti-migrant sentiment of this time came not from the media, not from the public, but from one man. Enoch Powell was Shadow Secretary of State for Health in 1968, a prominent frontbench Conservative politician and a rising star of the party. The vast majority of speeches from politicians go unnoticed and without comment by the public at large, but Enoch Powell, speaking to a room in Birmingham made one of the rare ones.

In a single speech, the narrative around migration was moulded, much of which remains to this day. Powell spoke of the impacts of migration in his constituency, where ‘picanninies’ abused white women, British nationals were harassed by migrants and soon, ‘the black man, would have the whip hand over the white man.’. He concluded with the claim that ‘like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, predicting racialised violence plaguing Britain and migration leading to a dystopian future where violence was the norm and the law. Controversy erupted after the speech, but polling suggests the majority of the public supported his views. When Powell was removed from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath, dockers and other workers went on strike in protest at the sacking.

((Enoch Powell at a 1969 meeting in Islington while he was a Conservative MP © Getty)

(Enoch Powell at a 1969 meeting in Islington while he was a Conservative MP © Getty)

The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is a milestone for migration in Britain. Much of the framing and narrative it included, even though the content may have been toned down, is still prominent in the debate around migration today. Where there is discord, the automatic assumption of guilt is placed on migrants, Muslims and so on — never on the people who are opposed to them. The country is continually and perpetually on the precipice of economic, political and social disaster due to migration being excessively high, which could be abated, if only we could take back control of our borders and arbitrarily apply some numerical limit to it. Immigration is described anecdotally — storytelling of bad experiences of integration – or else statistically, recanting precisely how many thousands have entered the country. Immigrants are exclusively the other — they are racially, culturally, ethnically, socially and visibly different to ‘us’. Whatever the year, whatever the numbers, it is always, always necessary for Governments to try to reduce migration.

Immigration is described anecdotally — storytelling of bad experiences of integration – or else statistically

These underpinning frameworks through which migration is debated, discussed and understood began their domination in the 1960s, and they’ve continued ever since.

The National Front rose to prominence in the 1970s, became more thuggish and violent as a street movement through the co-option the skinhead subculture in the 1980s, morphed into the BNP in the 1990s and was followed by the white nationalist, far-right, anti-Islamic street movements of the 21st Century the English Defence League and Britain First. Fascism on the streets, and later in councils, local assemblies and in the European Parliament was the natural by-product of this rhetoric and the fostering of hate.


(EDL © Dan Giannopoulos)

But it is a distraction to focus solely or mostly on the far-right. Focussing on the street movements, the fascists, the extremes is in part what allows the political class to get away with similar rhetoric, attitudes and sentiments. By 1972, attempts were made to reduce the number of migrants to the country by introducing work permit requirements on all incoming migrants. Prior to Margaret Thatcher’s General Election victory in 1979, she spoke of Britain being “swamped” by migrants,  and enacted stricter controls during her time in office. In 1996 it became a criminal offence to employ somebody without the legal right to stay in the UK.

In 2005, a central plank of the Conservative Party election platform was the claim ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration’. UKIP, the virulently anti-migrant party won their first MEPs in 1999, and went on to beat Labour into second place in the 2009 European elections, have their first elected MPs in 2014 and top the polls in the 2014 European elections. The Labour Party’s online merchandise store produced mugs in the 2015 General Election brandished with the phrase “controls on immigration”. Prominent Green Party members have written of their support for strict immigration controls.

mugs in the 2015 General Election brandished with the phrase “controls on immigration”

The British media have played their major part too. “Britain Must Ban Migrants”, “Draw a Red Line on Immigration, Or Else”, “Calais: Send in the Army” — these headlines and ones similar to them have permeated throughout the British press, and not just in the former Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley supporting Daily Mail or the crusading xenophobes at the Daily Express. No, this narrative around migration runs throughout our media like words through a stick of rock. While their tone may vary, The Mirror’s What About British Workers’ or The Guardian’s ‘Immigration System in Chaos’ feed the very same fears, apprehensions and concerns, albeit packaging and tailoring them to a different audience.


(The southern section of the Calais ‘Jungle’ was demolished earlier this year © Getty Images)

Let’s. Be. Clear. The notion that we haven’t been discussing immigration and that people’s concerns have been unable to be voiced is a lie — a blatant and clear lie that is rebutted by all evidence. We’ve been continually debating migration, virtually without pause, since the end of the Second World War.

Those on the right would want you to believe that the bulk of the British public are fed up of immigration, that they’re sick and tired of being accused of racism whenever they bring the topic up and that their concerns need to be listened to. Many seemingly on the left have simply given up, conceded this fight, and avert their eyes from the consequences. That, or else they frame it in democratic terms, arguing that the will of the people is clear, and we need to reflect that in policy and in campaigning. Others speak nostalgically of a golden age where migrants were welcomed with open arms, and we were all a lot kinder.

Many seemingly on the left have simply given up, conceded this fight, and avert their eyes from the consequences.

Almost without exception, migration is discussed by all sides in terms of specific groups of migrants. We hear constantly of migrants from Africa, from the Caribbean, Asia and Eastern Europe. Poles, Romanians, Somalians and Syrians are those who are currently in vogue to want to stop entering the country. Before it was African Caribbeans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis and so on and so on. Soon there will be others. We never hear of a necessity to stop migrants from the USA, Australia, France, Spain, Germany and so on; we don’t hear of a necessity to stop British nationals who have migrated abroad from re-entering the country. The public debate is fundamentally racialised.

(© redorbital/Demotix/Corbis)

(© redorbital/Demotix/Corbis)

Let’s be clear again. Debating migration is important, as important as debating any other of the myriad of issues that affect our politics and society. But that debate needs to be framed in a way that is based in the reality of people’s lives, recognises the impact that certain discourses have on human beings, and that is based on historical and contemporary fact.

And for those of us on the left, we need to be forthright in our support for migration and our opposition to borders, refuse to pander to the rhetoric and the ideals of the right and start the process of winning over hearts and minds. We must be steadfast in asserting that there can be no borders without violence and that talking of migrants in the economic framing of the right, strips them of their humanity. Failing to do so and we will continue to see the right dominating the debate on migration, the ongoing demonisation, scapegoating and violence directed towards migrants and the worsening of our society because of it. We need to get this right.

Featured image via Occupy

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