Britain’s Hostile Environment for Immigrants Is a Laboratory of State Racism
The British government has intensified the discriminatory policies that led to the Windrush scandal of illegal deportations. Its latest scheme to forcibly transfer refugees to Rwanda may prove unworkable, but such theatrical cruelty is an end in itself.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
It’s now ten years since Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, announced the so-called “hostile environment.” May’s self-consciously aggressive immigration policy led to the Windrush scandal, which saw dozens of people unlawfully deported from Britain to countries they had left as children.
Official hostility to immigrants and refugees dates back long before May entered the Home Office. The current British government is pushing the envelope even further, with Priti Patel’s scheme to forcibly transport asylum seekers to Rwanda. For all the theatrical cruelty of Patel and her allies, Britain is no outlier in a Europe where ideas once associated exclusively with the far right have entered the political mainstream.
Maya Goodfellow is an academic and the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
One of the standard themes of the discourse around immigration in Britain is the idea that it’s a very new phenomenon. How would you categorize and periodize the different stages in which people have come from other countries to live in Britain?
The most important thing to say is that world history in general and British history in particular is one of movement. There isn’t really a bounded British history in the way that we often think about it. You can chart this history. The Runnymede Trust has a website called Our Migration Story that periodizes it quite nicely in a way that people can understand.
When the Romans invaded, there were already lots of cultures and languages in England — it was very diverse. If you look at the Romans themselves, you can see people from all over their empire. From very early on in the first century, Britain’s population included people from North Africa, Syria, and the Balkans. You can chart different people coming from different parts of the world.
From the 1500s onwards, there were Romani people coming and Huguenots. Later, in the 1800s, there were people coming from parts of the empire like India and Ireland. In the twentieth century, you can see changes in who was coming in: Jewish people fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and increasingly people from the colonies and former colonies. There has always been this history of movement from different parts of the world.
We can periodize it, but we can sometimes flatten the complexity of it. One way of thinking about periodization which speaks to some of the contemporary debates is to look not just at the people who are moving here but at the different laws that have been introduced, with different forms of state bordering and the debates that have come with that. When Jewish people and many seafarers were coming from Asia in the early 1900s, you had very restrictive laws being introduced. Later, when you had people coming from the colonies and former colonies, you had another slate of restrictive laws.
We can see this at different times in more recent British history. That’s one way to grasp that there’s been this history of movement for a long time, with a restrictive state response. There’s a danger of presenting a very bleak picture, and in many ways, there is a real bleakness and violence to this story. But there has been resistance to that as well. If we look at British history, it does involve forms of state oppression, yet it also involves people responding and resisting.
During the postwar decades, how did the British state distinguish between immigration from the so-called white Commonwealth on the one hand — countries like Canada or Australia — and from the rest of its former colonies on the other?
There was a raft of measures that marked out some groups as being able to move here — they were encouraged and wanted — while others were not. This was based along lines of race. People were constructed as threatening, if you like. This took the form of two broad arguments that overlapped with one another.
On the one hand, there was the idea that certain racialized people were going to be an economic threat, or they weren’t going to do the work in the right way, or they were going to come and take from the British state. This idea was obviously connected to empire and colonial narratives that presented Britain as being benevolent. But there was also the idea of certain groups as cultural threats who were going to undermine Britain culturally. This shifted over time in terms of who was marked out in this way.
There was an argument that people from the so-called white Commonwealth had cultural similarities with British people that meant that they wouldn’t unsettle or destabilize what it meant to be British. Obviously, there are severe problems with this kind of argument, not least the question of what we mean when we talk about culture. Is it really a static thing?
We know that these arguments are racist ones, but they persist in different ways today. This idea of so-called British culture can’t be separated out from what happened historically. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall noted that the one thing everyone knew about an English person was that they couldn’t get through the day without a cup of tea. Where is tea grown? There are no tea plantations in England. They’re in India or Sri Lanka. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.
What are the main landmarks in the history of laws that have been passed to restrict immigration to Britain since the 1960s?
There were a number of different laws. We have to understand where the debate was going and see what was being done to people. The big shift was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. These laws were about separating people from the so-called white Commonwealth on the one hand and people from colonies and former colonies who were being racialized as threats on the other. The 1962 act really made it more difficult for those that we might now call people of color to come to Britain.
Before the act, you could move from a colony or former colony because of the way that empire worked, which was put into law through the 1948 British Nationality Act. But after 1962, if your passport was issued under the authority of a colonial government, you needed an employment voucher from the British government to come and live in this country. Because of the very specific nature of the act, it only affected certain people — specifically people coming from countries like India and Pakistan. It was racially encoded.
Prior to this, governments had made it more difficult for people that they considered racially undesirable to come to Britain. They did things like intervening to increase the cost of boat tickets. Obviously, you have a longer history, with immigration laws in the early 1900s that were largely about stopping poor people and Jewish people from coming to Britain. This was a more recent and slightly different articulation of that.
From then on, you see more and more laws being passed. The 1962 act opened up the possibility to legislate in this way. It was a Conservative government that passed it, and the Labour Party initially opposed the act for a variety of reasons. But then in 1968 you had the Commonwealth Immigrants Act when Labour was in power. The history of that act is complicated and linked to changes that were going on in Kenya at the time.
Essentially, more and more people who had moved to Kenya from South Asia now wanted to move to Britain. The 1968 act made it more difficult for those people to come here. The Labour government panicked and wanted to stop them from coming, so they rushed through this act that meant that any citizen of the colonies was subject to immigration controls unless they had one parent or grandparent born, adopted, naturalized, or registered in Britain. Again, this was racially encoded.
This was followed by the 1971 Immigration Act. The Labour Party laid the groundwork for it, but it was passed by a Conservative government. It ended the idea of Commonwealth subjects or citizens, replacing it with a distinction between “patrials” who didn’t face any restrictions and “nonpatrials” who did. Patrials were people either born or naturalized in the UK or who had one parent or grandparent born or naturalized in the UK.
The 1981 British Nationality Act was the next milestone. It meant that you weren’t automatically entitled to citizenship if you were born in this country: at least one of your parents had to be born or settled in the UK. This still has an ongoing impact for people who are born in Britain but are not able to access British citizenship.
As well as these laws, there were other things going on as well to make it more difficult for people to come here. Both Labour and Conservative governments carried out state virginity tests on women coming from South Asia. If you fast-forward to more recent history, you see from the 1990s an intensifying succession of laws that made it more difficult for people to claim asylum here or to survive after putting in their claim.
From this very broad overview that I’ve attempted to give, you can begin to see how complex it is and how difficult it is to navigate a lot of this legislation. A lot of people that you speak to, including immigration lawyers, struggle to get their heads around the regulations, which are frequently changing and built on decades of racialized policies.
How did immigrant communities from South Asia and the Caribbean in particular begin to organize in response to the racism and discrimination that they encountered in Britain? What impact did they have on British politics by doing so?
Throughout history, there have been vibrant, sustained, and powerful anti-racist movements. In the early 1900s, you saw people organizing against racism and xenophobia in Britain. From the 1960s onward, there was so much resistance to what governments were doing. Every time, there was pushback.
One example was an important coalition of different groups campaigning against the virginity testing that I mentioned. Groups like the Indian Workers’ Association, Southall Black Sisters, and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent campaigned against policies like virginity testing. There were organizations like the Asian Youth League and protests against racial violence. You had people organizing within the Labour Party as well as outside it. That community solidarity was incredibly important.
Some of the things that did happen wouldn’t have been possible without this kind of resistance, like the eventual enactment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its later strengthening, which essentially outlawed racial discrimination in areas like housing, employment, and education. There are criticisms to be made of those laws, but even those shifts wouldn’t have been possible without these attempts to hold the state accountable and force it to act in the interests of people who were being racially discriminated against.
There were and are lots of grassroots movements. You find this when you look at the history of those campaigning against detention centers and providing support for people. This has been a very important counterweight to a lot of the things that were being done in government, but also on the streets, by those who were opposed to immigration.
The Tony Blair–Gordon Brown Labour government is often remembered, by its critics and its defenders alike, as having been quite a liberal cosmopolitan government, which saw immigration as a positive thing and encouraged it. But what was its actual record in this field?
New Labour is a very important part of this history to understand because there is an argument that is very widely believed. According to that argument, the reason we saw an increase in anti-immigration feeling and the rise of politicians like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was that the Labour Party was too open, too liberal, and let too many people in. The real story is very complicated, because it made so many changes to the system that it can be difficult to track.
One thing it did was to change the messaging. New Labour talked a lot about immigration being good for the economy. It said it was happy with people being able to come into the country. The government changed the immigration system in a number of ways and said that so long as immigration is good for the economy, we are happy for it to be happening. Some people would criticize them for that, while others would see it in a positive way.
But there’s another way of understanding it. First of all, New Labour made this argument about immigration being good for the economy without even trying to engage in the racialized debate that existed before. It didn’t try to dismantle all the arguments about immigration being a problem.
It might have been saying that immigration could be good for the economy, but it was also overseeing some quite authoritarian measures. Islamophobia was laced into a lot of its policies. Labour never made a considered effort to shift the narrative in a way that would speak to some of the underlying views about immigration that had built up in the previous years.
In addition, a lot of its approach to immigration was about having what it called a flexible workforce. This meant bringing in people who would be described as “low-skilled” — which I think is a very unhelpful and stigmatizing term — on a temporary basis. It wanted people to come in, do the work, and not stay long term or have the support that they might need. There was a kind of disposability to all of this.
It is difficult to track these shifts because of the number of changes that were made, but from what we can tell, that was one of the things that was going on. We should be very careful when we talk about immigration not to talk about people almost as if they were commodities — they’re good for the economy — as opposed to thinking about them as people.
At the same time, the New Labour government was producing asylum policies that were very harsh and strict. It stopped people who were waiting for their asylum applications to be processed from working, for example, and limited their access to state support. Under New Labour, there was a lot of talk about “bogus asylum seekers” versus “genuine refugees.” That notion was popularized.
By the end of the New Labour period, levels of destitution among people who had been refused asylum had increased significantly, as had the number of people who had to sleep on the streets. Refugees experienced all kinds of awful things. There was a toxic narrative and a set of policies around asylum, and obviously not everyone separates that out from immigration in general. Even if you want to defend Labour’s wider messaging and policy when it came to immigration, the anti-asylum narrative certainly helped construct and fuel public dislike of immigration.
As you’ve said, when New Labour politicians and people of similar ideological bent did try to make some kind of positive case for immigration, they often tended to do so in very technocratic terms, saying that immigration was good for the economy as a whole. But that may not impress people very much if they don’t think that the economy is good for them. What is the hard evidence, away from all the rhetoric and the newspaper headlines, about the impact of immigration on labor markets, on public services, and on other economic issues that have been discussed in such alarmist terms?
There’s a lot to think about when we discuss this subject. The technocratic framing that says people can come if they’re useful for the needs of capital is very destructive. Already, there’s a real problem with that. Why would you separate off people who happen to come from a different country, who are described as immigrants, from the rest of the population?
There’s a narrative that presents immigrants as people who are taking jobs and taking benefits at the same time. If you migrate here and take a job as a nurse, in doing so, you are supposedly taking a job from a British person. At the same time, you are supposedly putting pressure on the National Health Service, going to the front of the queue.
In response to that, there’s a risk of going down a certain road, saying that we know people work and we know people are necessary for the NHS. Of course, there really is a truth to that. From its very founding, people from all over the world have been working in the NHS. But I don’t think that should be the basis on which we say they should be able to move and settle in Britain.
There’s a broader question here about the ways that the economy and the labor market function. A lot of blame for that is placed at the door of people who have migrated here. The British labor market is structured in such a way as to expose certain groups of people in certain lines of work to more vulnerability and disposability.
This is caused by the way that capitalism functions, rather than by the fact that people are moving here. If some people who are coming into Britain are being badly paid and employed on worse terms than others, that’s not their fault — it’s the fault of the economic model, with immigrants being made into scapegoats for that.
There’s also another part to the discussion. When people talk about whether immigration is good or bad for the economy, there’s a cultural argument at play as well. These two aspects of the debate overlap in certain ways. There is an idea that certain groups of people who are migrating to Britain are culturally distinct and therefore more likely to be dishonest and claim benefits. They are meant to have an innate desire to take advantage of the supposedly generous British state. We can read that as a form of racialization.
What was the relationship between the politics surrounding immigration in Britain and the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum of 2016?
One of the best-known symbols from the Leave campaign was the billboard of people — largely brown people — coming into Europe seeking asylum. That encapsulated the way that the Leave campaign tapped into racialized anti-immigration messaging. If you look at the literature that they put out, there was an Islamophobic narrative about the threat of Turkey joining the European Union, depicting people from Turkey as having a predisposition to commit crimes. That played on existing narratives in Britain about who represents a threat and the idea of controlling borders.
The sad irony is that, although part of the debate was about free movement and people coming from other European countries — in particular from Eastern Europe — we know that Europe itself already has an incredibly restrictive border regime. The Leave campaign was playing on the idea that Europe didn’t have a regime like that: by leaving, Britain would be able to stop, not only immigration from EU states, but also Muslims or people who were perceived as Muslims. That was a crucial part of the debate.
While a lot of time has been spent looking at that, necessarily so, it’s also important to look at the Remain campaign and some of the people who were involved in it. Obviously, it was diverse, and there were multiple messages being put across. But one of the leading figures was David Cameron, who was complicit in reproducing those narratives about immigration. He was the architect of the whole referendum.
A key part of the government’s negotiating strategy prior to Brexit was an attempt to persuade the British public not to vote Leave by saying they were going to be harsher in dealing with people coming to Britain from Europe. We should certainly look at the racialized nature of the arguments being made by the Leave campaign, but we should also be looking at the Remain campaign and putting its ideas about migration under similar scrutiny.
How have the left-wing currents in British politics, chiefly in the Labour Party and the trade union movement, responded to the debate over immigration as it’s come to be such a dominant theme in political discourse?
It’s a mixed picture. There’s a long history of anti-racist movements, and a long history of pushing back against anti-immigration sentiment both outside and inside the Labour Party and the trade unions. It’s important not to erase the work done by those people, but it’s also important not to present an idealized version of the labor movement in Britain. At key moments, important parts of the Labour Party and the union movement have been complicit in reproducing anti-immigration sentiment and advocating for measures that would harm people who want to migrate here.
There’s an ideal of the main worker being a white man: that obviously doesn’t correspond to reality, because the working class is multiracial and multinational. There’s an underlying argument in certain quarters that people whose votes Labour needs to win are concerned about immigration and Labour should respond to that. According to this viewpoint, migration is the problem, because people who move here are undercutting wages. That has been a strand of opinion within parts of the Left, when the attitude should be that people who move here are part of the working class, wherever they come from in the world.
What would you say is novel about the approach that is being taken by the current Tory government against the long-term backdrop of immigration and asylum policy over the last few decades?
We do have a longer history of anti-asylum policy that supplies an important context, so we shouldn’t suggest that this is a massive break with what’s come before. But we can say that there has been a shift in certain ways. There is a sense of authoritarianism and pushing even further within the bounds of what is possible.
It remains to be seen what will happen with the Rwanda policy. There have already been legal challenges, which I think the government will relish, but which are necessary given how draconian the policy is. It is about sending the message that Britain is closed.
There is a tension at times within the Conservative Party between people who are pro-immigration for economic purposes and the needs of business, and people who want an even more restrictive approach. As I said in reference to New Labour, there’s already a problem with that supposedly “open” approach that isn’t really open. There are ongoing developments, but it does seem as if they want fewer people to be able to come into the country.
Whether that is a question of being able to exploit people abroad in particular ways, in order to continue with the kind of economy they want to sustain, remains to be seen. There is a streak of authoritarianism that has existed at various points in British history and now seems to be manifesting itself through Britain’s asylum policy.
In the wake of Brexit, especially many liberals in Britain have tended to see the country as being an outlier in European politics and having an especially backward and xenophobic political culture. But how much of the British debate do you think we can see mirrored in other West European countries?
This is a major flaw in the debate around Brexit, whatever side you fall on. People suggest that Britain has become more hostile to immigration as a result of Brexit. We can obviously see evidence of that being true with regard to the Conservative Party and the changes to the system. But we also need to think about what came before, and ask ourselves: what about European border policy?
There was an idea in the aftermath of the referendum that leaving the EU was going to turn Britain into a place it had never been before. The suggestion was that Britain was now going to be hostile to immigrants whereas before it had been quite open. Perhaps it was open in terms of free movement within the EU — although even in that respect, there were all kinds of conditions attached, so we shouldn’t pretend that everyone was treated very well after coming from different parts of Europe. Yet there was a highly repressive border regime within Europe for people who came from outside the EU.
Some of the arguments about refugees, especially Islamophobic narratives, that were popular in Britain were also being made in Germany and other European countries. People from Syria and other countries were seen as a cultural threat. In material terms, you have the money being put into Frontex and the pushbacks from the Italian coast and elsewhere. Through aid money, the EU has been outsourcing its border regime to Africa.
There are specificities in different countries that we should understand, but Britain is not an outlier. Yes, there are specific things being done here that we should care about and that we should resist. But in large parts of Europe, there are also highly oppressive border policies and toxic debates about immigration and asylum.