The long history of the hostile environment

For decades, the UK government has restricted citizenship to exclude and criminalise people from Commonwealth countries. By Marjorie H Morgan

June 29, 2018
8 min read

Enoch Powell

The Windrush Scandal has shed light on the ‘hostile environment’ as it has recently been implemented against legal British citizens who were reclassified as migrants, illegally detained, and sometimes deported from their home and country; this is part of a Conservative Government system of xeno-racial profiling and victimisation.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid suggested, in a recent interview that the ‘hostile environment’ began in 2008. But parliamentary records show that deportations connected to ‘country of origin’ have been a regular part of British history for decades.

In 1962 Carmen Bryan, a former Commonwealth citizen, was one of the first people to be deported following the implementation of under the terms of the newly enacted 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act (CIA).

Bryan was arrested on a £2 shoplifting offence and as a result Paddington Magistrate’s court recommended her for deportation to Jamaica. Bryan’s case was questioned in the House of Commons by Labour MP Eric Fletcher who suggested the magistrates were misusing their powers of detention and deportation as the CIA 1962 “was not intended to apply to cases of petty larceny.” Despite reminders that deportation was only supposed to be applied to serious cases, the Conservative Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, refused to agree that the £2 shoplifting offence was not trivial, or to take into consideration that it was a first offence: he upheld the recommendation for deportation.

Carmen Bryan’s case mirrors current Windrush Scandal cases, where BAME citizens of former colonies are singled out for legal victimisation – or in the words of Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘turned into migrants.. She was held in detention without access to any legal advice for over a month, and furthermore did not have any communication with the Jamaican High Commissioner. Bryan was told by the legal establishment to accept deportation because “it would be impossible for her to appeal and that if she appealed she might be sentenced to imprisonment and then deported”; given Hobson’s choice to either spend her life in Holloway or be sent to Jamaica, Bryan, under duress, chose the deportation option.

In the first two months of the 1962, with the CIA on the statute books, magistrates recommended the deportation of 109 Commonwealth migrants, and other officials recommended 16 additional deportationsBy the 21 May 1963 the Conservative Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, signed 237 deportation orders  – it is not know how many were for petty crimes or for any other reason. Hansard states that by 3 Jan 1964 that Carmen Bryan was one of 422 Caribbean migrants recommended for deportation – this was less than 18 months following the introduction of the CIA 1962.

Parliamentary records show that deportations have been a regular part of British history for centuries. Although British citizens have not been regularly deported for criminal offences since 1868, the Windrush Scandal is evidence of the ongoing situation of discrimination against Commonwealth citizens as entrenched in the 1962 CIA. This instrument of law reduced the rights of British citizens if they had links to Commonwealth countries. Before 1962 all Commonwealth citizens were recognised as full British subjects – as specified in the British Nationality Act (BNA) 1948:

in this Act and in any other enactment or instrument whatever, whether passed, or made before or after the commencement of this Act, the expression ” British subject ” and the expression ” Commonwealth citizen” shall have the same meaning.” BNA 1948 P1 s.2

British nationality was therefore synonymous with British citizenship. This changed within four years after the start of the 1950s Commonwealth migration to the UK of mainly Caribbean and Asian British citizens. There were a series of laws enacted between 1962 and 1971 which reduced and altered the rights of British Commonwealth citizens in the UK. The 1981 BNA further altered the categories of British nationality and ceased to recognise Commonwealth citizens as British subjects with effect from 1 January 1983.

Conservative MP Enoch Powell called for a more restrictive policy on immigration in regular racist speeches, citing the grievances of self-titled ‘native’ white Britons. Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech was hugely influential – galvanising support for right-wing anti-migrant politics, which would provide the basis for decades of restrictive immigration policies. These policies have applied to the vast majority of migrants to Britain from either current or former British colonies: deliberately racist, as the unrestricted right to enter and remain in the UK was deliberately removed as part of the process of retracting the rights of migrants through legal restriction of citizenship which targeted specifically BAME people.

This is the foundation of the ‘hostile environment’: a long-running retraction of citizenship rights, treating people from the Commonwealth as problem that needs to be controlled, associating their presence with “social disorder and malady”. He might be decried as an extremist from some quarters, but Powell’s infamous speech stated “the encouragement of re-emigration” was official Conservative party policy; he also concurred that that the Conservative plan to reduce Black immigration was “by stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow.Within a few years the British Commonwealth people went from being invited citizens to the Motherland to ‘invaders’: they were viewed as a disease that had to be prevented.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that of the 63 people identified as part of the illegally deported Windrush cohort there were 32 who had criminal records who he did not want to repatriate to Britain, as they were ‘foreign national’ criminal offenders. This begs the question of when they were categorised as ‘foreign nationals’. When their landing cards were lost or destroyed in Home Office chaos? Or perhaps after they were illegally deported? That they have been duly tried and convicted of crimes is not the central issue – their citizenship is the matter for debate. Depriving them of citizenship is the only way to justify using deportation as a punishment for crime. It hasn’t been legal to use such tactics against  not 18thC transportation policies which condemned tens of thousands of working class people, usually those who had commited minor offences, to exile in penal colonies. It’s worth noting that they too were seen as a predatory threat to society.

Javid stated that since the beginning of electronic records in 2002, there have been around 8,000 deportations and removals to the Caribbean. Javid also concurred that the number of people wrongly detained was “a lot more than removal and deportations”; he insisted that his was part of the government’s implementation of a ‘compliant’, rather than hostile environment.

The scale and cruelty ‘hostile environment’ have rightly shocked the British public – but it’s not a new creation. It’s part of a long legacy of exclusion and criminalisation which lies at the heart of how Britain treats its former colonies – and BAME people in general.