Arrivals: Reflections on the History of Border Control

This article by Becky Taylor is written in response to a new exhibition at the Migration Museum, London. The curators’ view of the exhibition is explored in a sister article for HWO, Room to Breathe: The Stories of MigrationThese articles continue the conversation developed in the recent Migration and Mobility Virtual Special Issue of History Workshop Journal. 

Passport checks, visa requirements, border controls, security barriers, X-ray machines, bio-metric passports and fingerprinting, sniffer dogs, the request to ‘come this way, sir’ from a member of the UK Border Agency. We now take all this paraphernalia of crossing an international border for granted. But it is easy to forget just how recent these technologies of movement actually are. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, with the exception of times of war and epidemic, across the globe the norm was for both foreigners and ‘natives’ to enjoy the same rights of entry to a country.

It was the mass movements from southern and eastern Europe from the 1860s onwards, the exodus of thousands of Jews from Russia and Poland fleeing pogroms and economic repression in the 1880s, and then the fallout from the First World War – the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German multi-ethnic empires – which spelt an end to a world of free movement, and the universal expectation that international travellers would carry a passport. Egidio Reale, writing in 1930, conjured his own version of the Rip van Winkle story where:

‘A man awakes during the interwar period from a slumber of some years to find that he can talk on the telephone to friends in London, Paris, Tokyo, or New York, hear stock market quotations or concerts from around the globe, fly across the oceans – but not traverse the earthly borders without stringent bureaucratic formalities in the course of which his nationality would be scrutinized closely.’

Children arriving at Ellis Island, USA, 1908 (Records of the US Public Health Service / Brown Brothers, 90-G-125-29)

Britain’s bureaucratic formality was the 1919 Aliens Act, which was underpinned by a stark distinction between travellers who were ‘British’ – defined as anyone from any part of the British empire – and who were ‘alien’. It aimed to keep out ‘undesirable’ non-British subjects through port-of-entry medical checks and interviews with immigration officials to make sure aliens would not become a ‘charge on the public purse’. Without any distinction in law between aliens and refugees, Jews and others fleeing Nazism in the 1930s needed to pass these stringent tests to gain entry to Britain. And as the grip of Nazism tightened in Europe, Britain responded by further tightening immigration requirements, demanding that refugees organise a visa, promise of work or guarantee of support before they even left Greater Germany. Even then an immigration official might still turn them back. No wonder that the months before the war saw refugees attempting to illegally enter Britain on boats or planes, desperate to escape Nazi persecution.

After the second world war, government’s concerns shifted – no longer was the ‘alien’ the primary source of concern, attention now shifted to people from Britain’s former, and disintegrating, empire. After 1960 the focus shifted to making distinctions between different ‘citizens of the UK and colonies’. First through requiring labour permits, then through insisting on ‘patrial’ connections – parents or grandparents having been born in the UK – people from the New Commonwealth had their rights of automatic entry stripped away. Now it was they who faced searching immigration interviews, investigations into their marriages, income levels, study plans. As Commonwealth rights decreased, rights of entry for those from what became the European Union increased after Britain joined the EEC in 1973. Now, on the eve of Brexit, the sands shift once again – it is to be the skilled, the wealthy, irrespective of origin, who will be able to walk with confidence through immigration control.

Demonstrators outside the US Embassy, London, 2017 (Flickr / Alisdare Hickson)

Of course, getting through border control is only the first step to ‘arriving’ in a new country. Each first trip to the doctor, dentist, hospital, council, dole or tax office, or police station can be yet another reminder of your alien status, another moment of anxiety in a world where paper walls as much as physical barriers determine who belongs and who is kept out.

To read more from HWO on the history of migration, see:

Virtual Special Issue: Migration and Mobility

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