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Take no pride in Britain’s brutal immigration history

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The Tories’ plans to send refugees to Rwanda is another example of how the state treats migrants. Socialist Worker tells the bloody history of Britain’s borders
Issue 2802
Enoch Powell is part of Britain's racist history of immigration

Enoch Powell incited violence against immigrants

From allowing Jewish people to die at the hands of the Nazis to drownings in the Channel, Boris Johnson is wrong to claim that Britain has “a proud history” of welcoming people. The Tories have a long-term mission to scapegoat migrants for the problems in society. That’s ­particularly useful now as Johnson ­teeters on the edge of removal from Downing Street. 

As he announced the plans to deport refugees to Rwanda for “processing”, Johnson said, ­without a hint of irony, “Our Britain is a beacon of openness and generosity.”But the real record is saturated in blood.

Around 400,000 Irish people ­settled in Britain in the 1840s after a famine that was a result of British colonialism. They were met with widespread anti-Irish prejudice from the top of society. Irish people were barred from housing and employment. But the prejudices also dripped down wards, resulting in racist attacks. 

In the early 1900s Jewish people in eastern European were subject to pogroms and thousands saw their homes destroyed and family killed. But when they tried to escape to Britain, the ruling class branded them “criminals”. MPs brought in Britain’s first immigration controls—the Aliens Act 1905. It was specifically directed against Jews. It defined some migrants—mostly the poor and mentally ill—as “undesirable”.

When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1932, and Jewish people there fled, more immigration controls were announced. Britain reluctantly accepted just 9,354 unaccompanied children as refugees. Tory prime minister Neville Chamberlain said, “I don’t care a damn about the Jews.” From 600,000 received visa applications, just 70,000 refugees were accepted.

Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940 and Winston Churchill ordered police to “collar the lot”. That meant interning all Italians. Racist and sectarian groups ­followed his lead and attacked over 4,000 Italian migrants. The elite has only ever helped refugees when suits their interests or when pressured from below.

The British Nationality Act 1948 allowed all citizens of the British Empire to live and work in Britain without a visa. The intention was they would fill gaps in the labour market. Commonwealth migration rose from a trickle in the early 1950s to  more than 100,000 a year by the early 1960s. 

But rather than being welcomed by the “mother country” they were met with official destain and widespread racism. Politicians of all parties used migrants as a scapegoat for poor housing and low pay. This rhetoric developed the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which forced some migrants to “return to their own countries”.

Rabid racist, Enoch Powell incited violence against migrants. His Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 outlined the myth of what’s now “the great ­replacement” theory.  By 1972 only those holding a work permit or with parents or grandparents born in Britain could enter.

In mid-1970s the Wilson and Callaghan Labour government forced women from south Asia coming to Britain to marry to undergo virginity tests. 

Laws have continually been ­tightened to make it harder for people to move to Britain. The result today is people dying trying to escape war, poverty, ­climate change and hunger. There is nothing to celebrate about Britain’s immigration controls.

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