Britain’s historic hostility towards migration – by politicians of all stripes – has laid the groundwork for Priti Patel’s controversial plan to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda, says Thomas Perrett

The Government’s proposal to deport people seeking asylum arriving via ‘unauthorised’ routes to Rwanda has sparked visceral criticism from across the political spectrum.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said there are “serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas”; while Labour Leader Keir Starmer described it as a “desperate” attempt to distract from the ongoing ‘Partygate’ scandal which has engulfed the Conservative Party.

The scheme, which aims to deter migrants from crossing the Channel by relocating those who arrive through “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods” in Rwanda for their applications to be evaluated, has been criticised by the UN for breaching international law. Gillian Triggs, assistant secretary-general at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the agency “strongly condemns outsourcing the primary responsibility to consider the refugee status”.

But rather than merely functioning as a distraction, the Government’s proposal is disturbingly reminiscent of post-imperial policies in which the British state sought to mediate the UK’s relations with its colonies by controlling and regulating access to the spoils of Empire.

These policies, which began by making the status of non-white Commonwealth immigrants more precarious, later sought to categorise refugees and asylum seekers as an incursion which drained public finances and threatened to undermine national unity. 


Policing the Spoils of Empire

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Government sought to recast its relationship with its colonies in the face of stridently nationalistic movements in the Empire and as these territories became independent.

The 1948 British Nationality Act – passed by Clement Atlee’s Labour Government – distinguished between British ‘citizens’ and British ‘subjects without citizenship’, implicitly permitting freedom of movement for white citizens from Britain’s settler colonies.

However, as 500,000 racialised Commonwealth citizens arrived between 1948 and 1962, the government sought to introduce specific legislation to deter the influx of non-white British subjects.

It was in 1962 that the Conservative government began to introduce formal measures which categorised citizens from the Commonwealth as ‘immigrants’ instead of British ‘citizens’. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act stated that only immigrants with work visas, issued at the Home Secretary’s discretion and typically awarded only to highly-skilled workers, could travel to live and work in Britain.

Referred to by the then leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, as “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”, the 1962 Act set a precedent for legislation providing legal loopholes which disputed the rights of both asylum seekers and racialised British citizens to remain in the country, and to consider themselves British.

The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act can be considered a direct antecedent of the government’s Rwanda plan.

An explicitly discriminatory law, the Act denied 35,000 overseas British citizens the right to enter the country following the Africanisation policies carried out by newly independent Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta. Entry to Britain for Kenyan Asian refugees, permissible under the 1962 Act, was revoked on the grounds that Commonwealth citizens had to have either been born in Britain or have had at least one parent or grandparent born in the country to emigrate.

These pieces of legislation, aiming to construct a bordered British nation-state in the aftermath of decolonisation, defined ‘Britishness’ in explicitly racial terms. They sought to assuage post-imperial anxieties created by mass non-white immigration from former colonial dominions, contesting the ability of British subjects to become British citizens.


Disposing of Unwanted Arrivals

The political and legal disputation of Commonwealth citizens’ right to enter the country, which followed a wave of ethno-nationalist fervour and racist attacks on non-white British citizens, has provided the basis on which to refuse entry to refugees and people seeking asylum in the Government’s Rwanda plan today.

In her book (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, legal scholar Nadine El-Enany observes: “People residing in Britain on a temporary status are at the constant mercy of the state. Hanging over them is the threat of losing their status and of a court attaching little weight to the private life they established while holding their temporary status.”

Indeed, the 2018 case of Rhuppiah versus Secretary of State for the Home Department established a justification for the removal of immigrants with precarious citizenship status. The case concerned a woman who had travelled to Britain from the former British colony of Tanzania, yet faced removal following the denial of her application to remain in the UK. 

Although she had cited Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights – which provides for the right to a private and family life – the courts relied on the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act to dispute the applicability of this ruling. The court concluded that little consideration should be given to a person’s private life if their immigration status was precarious.

The invocation of this Act not only undermined the right of a vulnerable individual who had travelled from a former British colony to live in Britain, but also characterised immigrants with precarious status as a drain on the taxpayer.

The law states that it is in the “public interest” that immigrants are “financially secure” to ensure that they are not “a burden on taxpayers” – demonstrating how the livelihoods of people seeking asylum, and the conditions which they are compelled to flee, are of secondary concern. 

The Rwanda plan draws on this crude, populist logic.

The Government has consistently framed policies seeking to curtail immigration as beneficial for the security and prosperity of the British people, intent on providing a better life for genuine, ‘deserving,’ refugees.

Boris Johnson – whose Government has attacked as “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders” who have called into question the legality of its anti-immigration policies – has predictably blamed “politically motivated lawyers” for seeking to thwart the legally dubious Rwanda plan. The Home Secretary has also engaged in this rhetoric.

The Rwanda plan thus represents an opportunity for the Government to position itself as the ally of a ‘silent majority’ of the British people against excessively altruistic, ideologically-motivated opponents. 

Yet this does not stand up to scrutiny. A YouGov poll conducted within hours of the announcement of the proposal found that 42% of those surveyed were opposed to the plan, with 27% strongly opposed to it. Even in the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies snatched by the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election – commonly characterised as hostile to immigration – opposition to the scheme outweighed support for it.

The Rwanda plan is by no means an aberration when viewed within the turbulent context of Britain’s historic immigration policy. Successive governments have characterised both people seeking asylum and Commonwealth citizens as invasive interlopers; seeking to contest their status as British citizens and to dispute their rights to seek a prosperous future for themselves and their families.

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