Seeing Commonwealth immigrant children of the 1960s: then and now

A cascade of media coverage has highlighted cases of “Windrush children” immigrants who settled legally in Britain as children before 1973, but in recent years have been challenged by the Home Office to prove their immigration status in the UK. Amelia Gentleman at the Guardian initially brought attention to several perverse cases, and with the government drawing intense criticism in parliament from David Lammy and others, the home secretary has now been forced to apologise.

A common observation is that these people have been caught out by the “Hostile Environment” strategy the Home Office has increasingly adopted since Theresa May became home secretary in 2010. But to see just how profoundly expectations about internal control have changed, it is worth looking further back.

In our project’s first article, published online last week, we focus on UK policy toward irregular immigration in the 1960s – the time at which many of these individuals, decades later suspected as “illegal immigrants,” first arrived.

The big-picture observation Christina and I make in our article is that the Home Office at this time adopted policies toward irregular migration that were “symbolic,” responding to political pressure to accord with public accounts of what kind of immigration control would be sensible. Few in the Home Office thought that more punitive and individualised approaches would actually aid their policy goals.

The reasoning of today’s Home Office has dramatically changed, so there is much to be gained by looking back at the archival evidence we used in our article to see how policies were developed in the 1960s. Here are three key points that can help us understand the current plight of the “Windrush children.”

  1. Children of Commonwealth migrants could legally settle in the UK with little to no documentation before 1969

One of the main episodes we examine was the requirement that Commonwealth dependants arriving for settlement acquire “entry certificates” before embarking, a policy which was introduced in 1969. Before 1969, almost no documentation was strictly necessary for these children to immigrate to the UK. A passport would be produced, but many children were on their parents’, so any stamp conferring settlement rights in the UK might have been included in a passport that belonged to someone else, likely now to be long discarded.

Even when this measure was adopted, it was symbolic. The Home Office’s goal in the late 1960s was to reduce immigration numbers, but they did not believe that simply requiring more paperwork would do this. Nevertheless, they came under political pressure to enact the change. So the requirement that these children have entry documents was half-hearted, and the Home Office issued no further paperwork to them systematically upon arrival, either before or after 1969. Demanding such paperwork a half-century later was bound to produce Kafkaesque situations like the ones we’ve seen.

  1. The 1960s Home Office believed internal checks to be a largely ineffective way of controlling immigration

One reason it was possible for immigrants to have such little paperwork is that the UK did not operate any system of internal checks at this time. In the 1960s, the UK’s system for Commonwealth immigration was conceptualised as based entirely at the port. Unlike aliens, Commonwealth citizens were not required to register with the police and were rarely admitted with conditions.

Policymakers believed internal monitoring would be difficult to set up, resource-intensive, and unlikely to produce results. In our article, we quote the permanent secretary of the Home Office in 1965 as responding to proposals to begin relatively modest forms of internal monitoring by saying: “they are likely to be least effective with the kind of people we would most wish to keep out.” Given that they would likely be ineffective, measures to introduce more robust systems of ID and eligibility checks were not introduced at this time.

Of course, today’s “Hostile Environment” includes a wide variety of such checks, based on the apparent presumption that all legal immigrants are well documented. But we need to remember this is a recent development. The Home Office has not always been focused on internal monitoring. On the contrary, in the 1960s, most officials believed it would be ineffective, and would possibly ensnare those who were not the intended targets.

  1. “Illegal” Commonwealth immigration did not exist until 1968

Between 1962 and 1968, Commonwealth immigrants could not immigrate “illegally” to the UK – they could be turned away at the port and sent home if they were deemed not to qualify, but this ability to inspect them lasted only 24 hours. If they had entered clandestinely (or were let in despite not genuinely being eligible), after a day, they were de facto able to stay.

Our article explores how even when the Home Office changed this, they did so only for symbolic reasons. Officials did not think that the change would really help control immigration, but they created “illegality” basically because they were under political pressure over a legal regime they knew “look[ed] ridiculous.”

This underscores how characterising any Commonwealth immigrants who arrived before 1968 as possibly being “illegal” is itself a nonsense. Consider this: today, the Home Office is demanding that “Windrush children” prove they settled in the UK before 1973. But many of these people cannot show they arrived before this time, because beyond a stamp possibly in someone else’s passport, the Home Office did not in fact issue any such proof at the time. In subsequent years, many of these indviduals failed to obtain paperwork to confirm a status to which they had been considered entitled under law.

The “Hostile Environment” represents a significant advance in the UK’s internal monitoring regime even compared to 30 years ago (the topic of our current fieldwork), and in many regards represents the precise opposite of the policy reasoning of the Home Office when these “Windrush children” arrived. In the 1960s, while children were often subjected to invasive scrutiny at the ports of entry, the system was not focused on the individual transgression of immigration rules, and the rights of Commonwealth dependants were intended to prevail if they appeared to the officer at the port to have a legitimate claim to settle, paperwork notwithstanding.

Accordingly, expectations about individual documentation were completely different, both on the part of immigrants and immigration officials. The Home Office in the 1960s knew the issues with conducting internal checks given that Commonwealth migrants could be legally settled in the UK with little documentation at all. Indeed, officials in the late 1960s were actually worried about excluding Commonwealth citizens who had a legal right to settle in the UK on the grounds that they did not have the right paperwork.

Today, these concerns seem particularly painful in the context of the terrible cases highlighted by journalists and MPs. Unfortunately, this recent controversy highlights what happens when the Home Office enacts new policies with no apparent regard to its own institutional history.

— Mike