Turning citizens into migrants

People from across the political spectrum have trouble categorising BAME people as full citizens, writes Gurminder K Bhambra

April 19, 2018
6 min read

The current debacle over the wrongful attempted deportations of citizens from the Windrush generation highlights a key difficulty that people from across the political spectrum have in understanding that many Black and Minority Ethnic inhabitants are – and always have been – citizens. They did not come to Britain as migrants, but as citizens – and a failure to recognise that fact reveals how talking about ‘migrants’ is often a dog-whistle for talking about race.

Much of the debate prior to the vote to leave the European Union was about reclaiming our national sovereignty. Much of the discourse subsequent to the vote was a newly expressed concern with the plight, specifically, of the white working class. The focus on whiteness and class, located in the context of the nation, is significant. This is the category of people who have undeservingly suffered the indignities of economic decline, etc, and must be restored to dignity. It identifies a segment of the population that is the deserving object of public policy due to being ‘insiders’ – and the rest of us are, by default, excluded from the protections of public life.

Citizens who can demonstrate historical belonging to the nation are legitimate; while those who cannot are not. And yet, British policy on citizenship was not determined by national boundaries until as late as 1982. Until that time, British citizenship was understood in much more expansive terms.

It was only in 1948, with the British Nationality Act, that the government for the first time set out the formal contours of British citizenship. It did this not because there was a groundswell of opinion calling for citizenship rights from within the country, but as a consequence of Indian independence and the growing independence of the Dominion countries which were setting out their own forms of citizenship.

The 1948 Act established two main types of citizenship. The first was ‘Citizens of the UK and its Colonies’ – this was a shared, common citizenship for all those living within the UK and those living within the colonies. Second, there was ‘Commonwealth Citizenship’ which was given to all those within the Commonwealth who had previously been subjects of British Empire, its colonies and dominions.

At one stroke, Britain gave citizenship – plus all attendant rights to move here, settle, and work – to in excess of 800 million people. Why, you may ask, would a government do this? One thing that we need to remember is that Britain at the time was an empire. Empire is constituted by migration and the direction of travel had primarily been from Britain to the rest of the world. There was likely little thought given at the time to the idea that people from elsewhere may choose to exercise these rights and come to Britain.

The postwar period did begin to see the movement of darker citizens to Britain as exemplified, in part, by Windrush. However, this movement was dwarfed by that of paler migrants by a factor of ten to one. The concern, as expressed in the House of Commons debates on the matter, was only with what was called ‘coloured immigration’. From the very beginning then, the legal movement of darker citizens has always been understood in terms that locate them / us as migrants. Their children continue to be referred to as ‘second-generation immigrants’ while the descendents of their paler counterparts have, by and large, been allowed to assimilate into the general population. Thus it seems that according to the government, whether or not one counts as a ‘migrant’ is not about one’s legal status, citizenship or place of birth – but rather, down to race.

When, in 1968, Enoch Powell thundered against the ‘immigrant descended’ he was not talking about the children of paler migrants but those of darker citizens. When Theresa May instituted her ‘Go Home’ vans project, it was not sent around the areas of London where the greatest number of visa overstayers reside – that is, areas of white Australian, New Zealand, Canadian migration – but rather to those parts of the city in which you find BME citizens.

Even today, most commentators cannot bring themselves to talk about the British citizens at threat of arbitrary deportation, but continue to use the label of migrant or immigrant or second- or third-generation immigrant. Migration is not a heritable condition. And, more importantly, the people about whom they are commenting are not immigrants. What these commentators seem to have most difficulty with is the idea that darker citizens are citizens and the reason for the discrimination they face is not their migration status but their race. This is not to suggest that people don’t also suffer discrimination on the basis of their migration status – they clearly do – but the point here is in the deliberate and persistent mislabelling of some citizens as migrants.

Britain has an inglorious history of turning citizens into migrants. It did this through the Commonwealth Immigration Acts which gradually stripped rights away from British citizens on the basis of race and has now doubled down on ‘hostile environment’ policies, and broadened its focus to include non-UK EU citizens.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this is the treatment of the Windrush generation. Particularly the fact that the Home Office that is asking some citizens to provide the paperwork to identify their legitimacy to be included in the body politic is the same Home Office that destroyed the records that could have proved their citizenship.

The Windrush generation and their children have faced homelessness and unemployment, they’ve been denied healthcare and illegally deported. These indignities and very real difficulties are not down to their immigration status. Rather, they have everything to do with how the British state continues to seek to define itself through excluding people – claiming the right to deny people housing, healthcare and basic legal protections as part of their racialized redefinition of citizenship.

We are at a critical moment when our political community is being redefined – at times, it seems, without even our knowledge let alone our consent. We need to be alert to these redefinitions and work to construct a political community that is open, inclusive, and generous.

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