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History of hypocrisy over refugees

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David Cameron stands in a long tradition of British politicians turning away refugees. Sadie Robinson takes on their myths
Issue 2471
The 50,000-strong march in London last Saturday showed people dont always swallow politicians anti-refugee rhetoric
The 50,000-strong march in London last Saturday showed people don’t always swallow politicians’ anti-refugee rhetoric (Pic: Kelvin Williams)

Politicians who have spent months refusing to help refugees now claim to be continuing Britain’s “proud history” of helping those in need. They are rank hypocrites. 

Britain’s rulers have only ever helped some refugees when they feel it’s in their interests or when they are under pressure from below.

David Cameron claimed Britain saved Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany. In an article for The National newspaper, Scottish National Party MP George Kerevan called his story “a tissue of lies”.

Britain accepted just 9,354 unaccompanied children as refugees from the Nazis—and only because of public pressure. It left their parents to die.

Only Jews who were rich, had a guaranteed job or sponsor could apply to come here. Britain took just 1,000 young Holocaust survivors—and hardly any survivors were allowed to settle here.

This is the reality of Britain’s “proud history”. And it wasn’t a one-off. 

Some 400,000 Irish people came to Britain in the 1840s after a famine caused by Britain’s rulers. They weren’t welcomed.

The Times newspaper in 1847 squealed that Ireland “is pouring into the cities and even into the villages a fetid mass of famine, nakedness, dirt and fever”.

Racism trapped Irish people in the worst housing and lowest-paid jobs.

Millions of Jews fled eastern Europe to escape poverty and persecution at the end of the 19th century. Those who came to Britain were met with racism.

Tory MP William Evans Gordon said in 1902, “Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders.”

A vicious campaign by the press and politicians led to the Aliens Act of 1905—the first immigration controls in Britain. It entrenched the idea that some migrants were a problem.

Later panics targeted people coming to Britain from its former colonies. In the 1960s Jomo Kenyatta’s government forced Asian people to leave Kenya.

By late 1967 around 1,000 Kenyan Asians were arriving at Heathrow every month. They were British citizens—but that didn’t stop Labour home secretary James Callaghan bringing in a bill to keep them out.

A new quota meant Britain would accept just 1,500 “non?patrial”, or non-white, Kenyans a year. The quota was raised in response to public anger—but it exposed the racism of the state.


In the early 1970s Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin attacked Ugandan Asians. He declared in the summer of 1972 that they had three months to leave the country. Many had British citizenship.

Refugees - welcomed by some but not by the British state

Refugees – welcomed by some but not by the British state (Pic: Kelvin Williams)

Politicians claimed it was impossible to allow any more immigration.

But public opinion pressured the state to do more. Some 5,000 people in Britain offered to house refugees.

Another racist panic followed the expulsion of 250 Asians from Malawi in 1974— a tiny number. Tory MPs demanded a discussion in parliament about the “changing demographic character of Britain”.

Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins, instead of opposing this racism, assured them that Labour would keep “strict immigration controls”.

The British state interned migrants in Britain during the Second World War—including refugees. 

Right wing papers encouraged the mood. The Daily Mail targeted Italians living in Britain, who it described as a “seething cauldron” of “potential betrayal”.

Minister Sir Neville Bland warned, “Every German or Austrian servant, however superficially charming or devoted, is a real and grave menace.”

When Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940, Winston Churchill gave an order to “collar the lot”—to intern all Italians.

Mobs attacked Italian shops and over 4,000 Italians were arrested within two weeks. Within three months over 27,000 potential “enemy aliens” had been rounded up. Thousands were deported. 

After the war, Britain’s bosses needed labour to help rebuild the country. Around 300,000 Poles settled in Britain.

The decision to allow such numbers is often said to be a result of the Poles’ contribution to Britain’s “war effort”. Yet black and Asian troops who fought in the British army weren’t treated the same way.

In June 1948 the Empire Windrush reached Britain carrying 492 passengers, mostly men from Jamaica.

Robert Winder in his book Bloody Foreigners described the ensuing panic as “simple racism”.


Prime minister Clement Attlee wrote that the migrants should be free to enter Britain. But, “If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables, we might have to consider ­modifying it.”

The First World War ended with revolution. So in the wake of the Second World War, the ruling class was nervous. They feared that anger at the brutality of war and the poverty at home, could explode again.

Encouraging racist division weakened any challenge to ruling class power. It also provided useful scapegoats.

So when the post-war reconstruction boom slowed down in the 1950s, migrants were blamed for rising unemployment.

Fascists such as Oswald Mosley tried to capitalise on this and racist murders followed. Politicians claiming to oppose such “extremism” blamed the racism on migrants. 

They brought in new limits and quotas on immigration.

Home secretary Richard Butler admitted that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act “was intended to, and would in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively”.

Every clampdown spawned calls for harsher measures. Every act made it harder for people to come to Britain.

None of it improved the lives of workers born in Britain.

The racism pushed by our rulers can be sometimes accepted by ordinary people. 

But there is also a working class tradition of uniting with migrants and refugees, and resisting racism.

Ordinary people organised to stop fascists marching through London’s East End in the 1930s, and united against the Nazis across Britain in the 1970s.

More recently the ongoing Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees has mobilised thousands in protests to defend asylum seekers in the city.

Attempts by politicians to feign sympathy for refugees ring hollow. Their bloody empires and wars are the reason many people flee in the first place.

Britain’s rulers are not on the side of refugees or migrants. They aren’t on the side of working class people born here either. They use racism to keep us all down—and we should unite to get rid of them.

Scaremongering to divide our side

 The repeated panics, often over small numbers of people, can seem perplexing.

 But our rulers encourage them for their own interests.

The state treats migrants in general, not just refugees, as a problem.

Bosses and politicians recognise that migrant workers are a source of wealth. But they also whip up hostility to migrants as a way to sow division among the working class.

This contradiction sometimes leads to disagreements at the top.

For instance, Irish workers helped feed bosses’ growing need for labour during the Industrial Revolution.

As Sir Robert Peel warned in 1829, politicians should not “condemn too precipitately the incursion of Irish labourers into England”.

“We must consider well the advantages of cheap labour,” he said.


But they remained a useful scapegoat. British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli later wrote, “The Irish hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion.

“This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character.”

Those at the top encouraged poor British-born workers to feel superior to the Irish.

The revolutionary Karl Marx explained why.

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life,” he wrote.

“In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his own country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.”

Marx added that this antagonism “is the secret of the impotence of the English working class”.

Workers would have to overcome these divisions to fight for their own interests.

This is why our rulers have whipped up similar divisions for decades.

Further reading:

  • Say It Loud! Marxism and the fight against racism £9.99
  • Immigration—the myths spread to divide us £2

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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