Asylum UK – a history (part two)

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
16 June 2008

After the French Revolution, the British state sought to protect itself against dangerous French subversives and introduced the Aliens Bill (1793) which remained in force until 1826.

From 1826, Britain played host once again to different groups of refugees, and asylum was connected in the public imagination with the obligations of humanism, the rights of man and the espousal of free trade as an economic doctrine.

In February 1848, Lord Palmerston composed the definitive defence of a state's right to refuse to extradite refugees:

"The laws of hospitality, the dictates of humanity, the general feelings of mankind, forbid such surrenders; and any independent govern­ment, which of its own free will were to make such a surrender, would be universally and deservedly stigmatised as degraded and dishonoured."

Until the last decades of the nineteenth century, entry and settle­ment into Britain was relatively unrestricted. Hundreds of thousands of Britons were leaving every year, seeking opportunity and wealth in the colonies, and also in the United States. This, coupled with the demands of the industrial revolution, ensured a constant need for the labour force to be replenished.

Intolerance towards aliens, expressed in the slogan "England for the English" was heightened as British capitalism entered a period of decline, with economic crisis and high unemployment. This led to the 1905 Aliens' Act, the first attempt to regulate the flow of entrants into Britain. It was "passed for the purpose of checking the immigration of undesirable aliens".

Asylum in Britain has always been granted at the discretion of the Home Office, and is therefore susceptible to the whims of the holder of that office and to the government of the day. Shifts in public opinion towards refugees can quickly result in new legislation and influence the implementation of asylum policy.

The century of the refugee

The twentieth century has justifiably been called the century of the refugee. There were major population displacements in Europe from the beginning of the century, starting with revolutions in Russia, followed by the civil war and pogroms against Jews. In addition, the first world war uprooted millions more refugees. The draconian measures introduced by Britain in response were to shape the future of its asylum practice up to the present.

The 1914 and 1919 Acts were attempts to control entry, control that was facilitated by the introduction of passports. The coupling of direct and indirect surveillance (cus­toms officials and frontier guards, plus the central co-ordination of passport information) becomes one of the dis­tinctive features of the nation-state.

France, which had lost 1.5 million young men during the Great War (7% of the entire male population) saw a way of solving its chronic labour shortages and so took in 400,000 Russian refugees and over a million others "willing to do menial labour". Nor was the United States unhappy at the prospect of more European immigrants - thus there were obvious benefits to the asylum granting states.

At this time a body of law was created by European states, governing the protection of European refugees. One of the first tasks of the League of Nations High Commission was to define a refugee. A refugee was someone who left the territory of his/her state of origin and was without the protection of a state - but this definition was applied to groups or categories, and did not necessitate the examination of individuals.

In the year that Hitler came to power, a conference was convened in Geneva which led to the Convention relating to the International Status of Refugees (1933). For the first time, the principle that refugees should not be returned to their country of origin or rejected at the frontier of their country of origin was articulated in an international agree­ment.

However, though Article 3(2) of the Convention laid down a duty to grant asylum, it did not actually create a right to asylum for individual refugees.The United Kingdom and many other states objected to the latter principle as infringing on the rights of states to decide who should or should not be allowed to enter their territory. Only eight states ratified it.

At the Evian Conference (1938),convened by Roosevelt to address ‘the problem' of Jewish refugees, although it was agreed that member states would facilitate involuntary emigration from Germany (and later Austria), one by one, each state's delegate rose to explain why that particular state could not accept Jewish refugee.

It was only as a result of public revulsion following Kristallnacht in November 1938, that Chamberlain eased admission policy, though even then the refugees were allowed entry only on temporary visas. In 1938, the British cabinet agreed that it should:

"try to secure for this country prominent Jews who were being expelled from Germany and who had achieved distinc­tion whether in pure science, applied science, such as medical or technical industry, music or art. This would not only obtain for this country the advan­tage of their knowl­edge and experience, but would also create a favourable impression in the world particularly if our hospitality were offered with some warmth"

Two world wars revealed the limits of asylum practice. While Britain in the nineteenth century offered an example of how humanitarian and state interest could happily coincide, the twentieth and twenty-first century have revealed just how fragile this alliance actually was.

Source: Liza Schuster, "Asylum and the Lessons of History", Race & Class 2002 44: 40-56.

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