Shine A Light

Remember Liverpool 1946: Britain needs human rights to prevent immigration crime

The BBC2 documentary series ‘Mixed Britannia’ set out to show how ethnic diversity is central to the UK. Last week's episode took us back to a dark time in British history that demonstrates why immigration policy needs to be constrained by a strong commitment to human rights.

Don Flynn
19 October 2011

Liverpool is the town I was grew up in, so anecdotes about the role immigration has played in the history of this port city have always, literally, been close to home for me. George Alagiah's presentation in his ‘Mixed Britannia’ documentary of this particular story struck me with some force for all these reasons.

During the years of the WWII the city had become a refuge for tens of thousands of sea-farers from all over the world who had worked in the merchant marine under the conditions of the most brutal warfare.  Amongst these were an estimated 2000 Chinese ship-hands who for a period found a haven in which other generations of their compatriots had carved out a small niche.

But it seems that the Labour government in power in the years immediately after the War weren’t happy with this development. According to Alagiah, Home Office minutes from this period recorded the fact the new Chinese were a ‘problem to the police’, and the opportunity to expel them would be found.

This happened, according to the programme, in the early hours of a summer’s morning in 1946. Dawn raids by the police on households across the city lead to 1362 Chinese men being taken into custody. This included some 300 who had married local Liverpool women during the period of their stay. The number of Liverpool children born to Chinese fathers from this group was a minimum of 500, possibly rising to 1000 infants.

No matter. The men were herded into trucks and taken to the docks.  A ship was on the wharf which had been commissioned to transport the arrested men to the other side of world, to a China which at that time was embroiled in the violent conflict of its own civil war.

The programme interviewed Yvonne Foley, born a few months after these events to a marriage between her British mother and a Chinese father she was never to see. It seems she has conducted her own researches amongst her mixed heritage Liverpool Chinese peers to find the common story of her mother’s generation involving women who had been left on their own to raise young children without even being informed by the UK government of the fate of their husbands.

It would be decades before the UK authorities were made aware, because of civil society activism, that vital issues of fundamental human rights always lie at the heart of decisions to expel a spouse or a parent on the grounds of their non-British origins. The type of exercise mounted by the Liverpool police on that morning back in 1946 has had to be beaten back, metaphorically and literally, by the determined resistance of people and communities who knew human rights crime when they saw one.

Remembering the sheer depths an unrestrained government is capable of sinking to when it considers issues of migration and the lives of communities and the people who live in them, so vividly illustrated by the case of the Liverpool 1362, ought to galvanise a new wave of resistance to the plans of our current coalition to shove human rights of the agenda in the case of family reunification. We have all had a good laugh at the inanities of Theresa May and the farce of her ‘Catgate’ speech to the Tory conference, but remembering Liverpool in 1946 is a reason for us to get deadly serious once again.

A terrible crime was committed on that day, and the criminal perpetrators were never brought to justice. Yet in 2011 we stand on the threshold of a government pushing through new measures which are intended to give the immigration authorities the same powers they had back on that that dreadful day sixty five years ago. There are no clearer reasons for insisting that our immigration laws need to be underpinned and reinforced at all points by a rigorous commitment to human rights.

You can view the episode of ‘Mixed Britannia’ on BBC iplayer. Fast forward to 23:20-29:15 for the story of the Liverpool 1362.

This article was originally published on the Migrants' Rights Network blog.

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