‘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. There are strong parallels between this event and the growing list of contemporary disasters in the Mediterranean. One particularly interesting parallel is that the sinking of the Arandora Star resulted in a sudden about-face of British public opinion on government policy, comparable to the recent shift in public perception of refugees following the multiple disasters in the Mediterranean Sea. 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. However, pressured by the outcry following the Arandora Star’s sinking, the British government was forced to retract this policy and within a year most interned foreign nationals had been released. This could be partly attributed to the fact that the sense of crisis had diminished by 1941, due to Britain’s air superiority over the German Luftwaffe, but it is unlikely the government would have acted as swiftly without popular pressure forcing its hand.
This is an example of compassionate public opinion influencing government policy, but it remains a notable exception in a history of British immigration policy marked by 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: whereas Irish and Lithuanian immigrants suffered most from this characterisation in the early nineteenth century, Britain’s Jews were turned on in the 1930s. Today it is Muslims who bear the brunt of most anti-migrant rhetoric. The government views immigration legislation as an effective scapegoat for the 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’, and there was authorisation for widespread internment and deportation during both world wars. The post-war years of growth and prosperity are marked by their lack of mainstream anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, but this lasted exactly as long as the feeling of economic security. With 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.
Detaining non-British nationals became accepted policy during the world wars. Similar detention during peacetime had been codified in law since 1920, but it was only following the 1971 Immigration Act that it became commonplace to temporarily detain immigrants and asylum seekers until their status was confirmed. 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 any detention time limit. Jean-Claude Paye 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, but exceptional instances of compassion, such as in the aftermath of 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. 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.