Moving People

Colonial Fantasies of the Offshore

This is the sixth piece in the ‘Moving People’ feature, which explores the ways in which people on the move are labelled, remembered, and constrained. The series offers a historical understanding of present-day structures of asylum and immigration.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of people who are forced to cross the English Channel in small boats and aboard lorries in search of asylum in the UK. Ever stronger border infrastructure, the removal of safe and legal routes to asylum in Britain, diminishing hopes of gaining asylum in the EU, and the state-enforced squalor that displaced people are exposed to in the port towns of Calais and Dunkirk, have all led to an increasing number of desperate attempts to reach the UK by any means possible. Around 8400 people made their way from northern France to the UK coast using small vessels such as rubber boats and dinghies in 2020, with 98% claiming asylum upon arrival. Many made it to the British shoreline, landing on beaches in Kent and East Sussex, while others were picked up by Border Force patrols in the English Channel. Some who attempted this dangerous journey drowned or were declared missing. Faced with this maritime spectacle, and with refugee drownings off the coast of England bringing total border deaths since 1999 close to 300, the UK government has taken an offshore approach redolent of colonial era logics. They have deployed military ‘assets’ including drones, coastal patrols and warships, comprising three cutters named HMC “Vigilant”, “Searcher”, and “Seeker”. The UK Home Office appointed an ex-marine to the new position of ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander‘ with the explicit aim of ‘adopting interceptions at sea and the direct return of boats’. These actions set the stage for a ‘New Plan for Immigration’ announced in April 2021 by Home Secretary Priti Patel. This new policy approach will remove the right to asylum from people who make their own way to the UK and will seek offshore solutions to the administration of the asylum system. We suggest that contemporary attempts to exclude racialised outsiders through maritime measures have deep colonial histories.

It is tempting to situate this response within the context of the Channel itself, since this is a stretch of water which has seen many refugee crossings through history. For example, the English Channel had witnessed refugee migration in the bloody wake of the 16th-century Reformation. During the Great War 250,000 Belgian refugees crossed the Channel ‘crowding every floating thing that could possibly be put out to sea’. Folkstone on the south coast of England became known as a ‘town of refugees’ with 35,000 arriving in October 1914 alone. So, the English Channel, when viewed through the longue durée of history, is no stranger to displacement and asylum. These are not, however, the histories which can help us to understand this recent policy development. Instead, as we have argued in a recent article, it is colonial histories and their legacies in the present, that we must look to in understanding the impulse to manage migration offshore. In part this is about who is seeking to cross the Channel for refuge today. The period since the late 1990s especially has seen a shift from people seeking asylum being construed as humanitarian victims to illegal economic migrants. This shift has coincided with a change in the nationalities of those seeking asylum. No longer are they European and racialised as white, now they come from formerly colonised countries, and are racialised as black and brown. It is in this racialised context that the Channel borderzone has become a site of securitisation and militarisation against the perceived menace of irregular migrants seeking entry to the UK.

A sailing ship and a ferry photographed in the English Channel: contemporary attempts to exclude racialized outsiders off the UK coast have deep colonial roots. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Efforts at controlling and excluding colonial, commonwealth, and ‘third world’ postcolonial travel through offshore measures has a long history. People racialised as ‘inferior’ were often subjected to extensive forms of spatial control which focussed on regulating mobility across European Empire. This accompanied exploitation and facilitated systems of accumulation by dispossession. For example, indigenous peoples in North America were removed from their land by settlers, their children taken into residential schools to unlearn their own culture, and adults put to work on the land, often hundreds of miles from their original territorial homes. Technologies to control international (forced) mobility were devised in the organisation of the slave trade. Enslaved people were sorted and categorised at transatlantic ports, inspected and documented through branding, wanted posters, and slave logbooks in a manner that preceded and shaped the invention of paper documentation and the passport.

Within the British Empire, colonial subjects did not enjoy real freedoms of movement even within the Empire’s constituent territories. Actual free movement only existed for white Europeans and settlers. Systems of centralised state border controls were developed in the late 19th century precisely to facilitate and control the movement of indentured labourers (mostly from the Indian subcontinent) across British and European empires—often via the sea—as a cheap and expendable workforce to support imperial capitalist and settler state interests. Just as plantation slavery was being banned within the British Empire, new racialised border practices emerged, including those enforced by the East India Company in 1835, which ensured that new supplies of exploitable labour could be easily found. One important aspect of these colonial era controls in the British Empire was the role of maritime law as a means through which mobilities were managed, and particularly kept out of Britain. The offshore was imagined by metropolitan policymakers as an invisible space, elsewhere, out of sight, somewhere in which normal rules did not count, where undesirable people could be surveilled, placed or confined to. Many people are aware of histories of transportation to Australia, but the forced mobility and deportation of undesirable people around the Empire was widespread in the colonial period. In this context, the offshore, as an imagined geography, could turn legal rights into ambiguous and indefinite forms of expulsion and abandonment.

A 19th Century painting of the ‘coolie ship’ Mersey in a gale. The uneven mobility of racialised migrants has always been a hallmark of empire. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As movements for decolonisation were successful in many territories across the British Empire in the post-war period, successive governments legislated to create a British immigration regime for the metropole which aimed to strictly curtail the movement of people who had previously been citizens of the British Empire. Boat arrivals of people of colour carrying British passports from other parts of the Commonwealth became symbolic of an ‘invasion’ that could threaten society. The Empire Windrush has become synonymous with this period. Commonwealth citizens, and then ‘migrants’, from former colonies were therefore slowly stripped of their right to move to the former metropole, particularly those racialised as non-white. Special effort was made to ensure that white arrivals were not curtailed. A series of Commonwealth Immigration Acts in 1962, 1968, and 1971 removed de facto citizenship from all Commonwealth citizens, unless they, their parents or a grandparent had been born, adopted or naturalised in the United Kingdom. This move meant that while many white Americans and Australians would be able to move easily to Britain, people from India, Jamaica or Pakistan would be kept offshore by the new rules. In short, mobilities, particularly, though of course not exclusively, in the context of postcolonial Britain, have always already been shaped by racialised notions of value and belonging.

When Britain ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which is the basis of refugee law in the UK, it did so (as did all other signatories) on the basis that refugees were defined as Europeans displaced before 1951. This territorial restriction, which remained until 1967, was hard won at the UN negotiations but it was necessary because Britain and the other colonial powers did not view colonised subjects to be fully entitled to human rights. The European Empires, of course, had been built on principles of racial hierarchy, and the humanity and civilisation of colonised peoples was contested. It is no coincidence that Britain, and the other world powers, became explicitly hostile to refugees at the very moment at which they started to arrive from these former colonial territories. There have been ten rafts of primary legislations which have sought to curtail the rights of people seeking asylum since the 1990s, and the most recent revives the colonial fantasy of the offshore as a space where the unwanted can be placed out of sight.

An anti-offshore processing protest banner. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Proposals have been made to place a floating wall, sea barrier, or even wave machines in the middle of the English Channel to prevent people seeking asylum from entering UK jurisdiction. As part of this agenda, obscure maritime laws have been utilised as a means of criminalising irregular Channel crossers, and therefore to deny them access to asylum. If someone who is aboard such a vessel, then, touches the tiller, oars, or steering device, they are liable to be arrested under anti-smuggling laws. So far in 2021, seven people have been given prison sentences on these grounds. Proposals under review include imprisoning unwanted asylum applicants on disused ferries moored off the British coastline; storing others on decommissioned North Sea oil rigs; or even deporting applicants to overseas territories, such as St Helena and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, or to Papua New Guinea or Morocco. This offshored criminalisation perpetuates a racialised narrative of ‘invasion’. Those who do make it to the UK are to be placed in an as yet indeterminate offshore location, externalising responsibility and outsourcing asylum beyond the territory of the UK.

These offshore spaces of exception are not new phenomena. The offshore is a longstanding imaginary operationalised throughout empire. Through offshoring, new territories can either be created on floating vessels, or existing territories bought through development funds which in themselves are shaped by imperial power relations. The latter would mimic the Australian approach on Manus Island and Papua New Guinea, the former is something more distinct.  All of these spaces become discursively untethered from the colonial logics that inform their creation, and the connected histories which inspire them.

The authors’ journal article on this subject is available here 

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