Headlines across the globe frequently feature issues of refugees, asylum, illegal immigrants, and the problems of migration. In the coming weeks, this series titled Moving People will explore the many experiences that these bureaucratic categories encompass, offering new ways to understand people on the move and the restrictions placed upon them. The pieces and podcast will dive deeper into situations which have been described as ‘refugee’ crises, archives of refugee experiences, which people tend to be labelled ‘migrants’, how some mobilities are privileged over others, how ‘migrants’ become ‘settlers’, and what types of constraints can be placed on those who have moved or are trying to move.
A historical perspective can reveal the experiences and inconsistencies that rest beneath the taxonomical straitjackets of labels used for people on the move, and how we store and write about their stories. Attempts to understand such biases are hardly new, with an extremely popular op-ed some years ago pondering the difference between expats and immigrants. Such usages can conceal exclusionary – sometimes xenophobic – policy-making, preventing a nuanced understanding of how these communities and political entities came to be constructed. These practices enable hierarchies of movement that actively control, remove, and police unwanted persons, including through international agreements.
The experiences of Indians within the British Empire exemplify these themes: legal categories upheld racial hierarchies and the interconnected imperial and global order which privileged Western nations and white settler dominions. In my own research, I have grappled with the constitutive and destructive powers of categories like the ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’, in particular how they relate to the construction of the postcolonial nation-state. India’s own refugee regime has famously not been codified in law; rather, the state has used the Foreigners Act, 1946 to group all ‘aliens’ within a single umbrella category. The origins of that decision lay in experiences of these hierarchies of movement in the early twentieth century. In particular, passports and immigration rules controlled Indians’ movements in the wider empire of which they were subject-citizens, even as the subcontinent itself was accessible to other people, who often enjoyed greater rights within India than Indians themselves. Comparing the experiences of Indians moving within the Empire with the internationally recognised European refugees in India reveals the complex hierarchies governing movement.
Within the British Empire, racial policies were inherently interlinked with controlling migration. The white settler dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa all enacted barriers, using higher fees and income thresholds for Indian people to enter, or in the case of Australia, a dictation test in any European language (chosen on the spot). London condoned these dominions’ policies, instructing magistrates in Indian districts to limit whom they issued passports to – usually the wealthy and well-educated. The exception to this remained indentured labourers and coolies, different to the Indian migrant in British eyes as a contracted workforce, in order to maintain the Empire’s productive capacity. Events like Canada’s refusal in 1914 to let the ship carrying Indian Sikh migrants, the Komagata Maru, land in its ports on grounds that its passengers failed the continuous journey regulation made evident that Indians had fewer rights than other subject-citizens of the British Empire, despite their equal status on paper.
Migration restrictions revealed the discrimination on the basis of race or class which seemingly universal terms like ‘migrant’ could conceal. This hierarchy was not lost on anti-colonial nationalists, and it is worth remembering that Gandhi’s first non-violent satyagraha was in search of the rights (as citizens) of the Indian diaspora in South Africa. Paradoxically, the lack of freedom in India was also used as a way to deny Indians franchise in the self-governing white settler territories of the Empire. The rights of Indians on the move revealed the artifice of legal equality, spurring on a nationalism and demand for self-determination that would guarantee these people the rights that did not seem forthcoming under British rule. Even as the situation of Indians beyond the subcontinent made evident the discriminatory hierarchies of empire, India became a place to put people unwanted in the European heartland – at the Indian government’s expense.
The treatment of those recognised as refugees by the League of Nations international community made clear the feebleness of imperial citizenship for Indian ‘migrants’ in comparison to non-subjects like these Europeans. India, as a British colony, became involved with the activities of the first High Commissioner for Refugees appointed by the League, Fridtjof Nansen. His mandate was limited to Europeans displaced by the First World War. Nansen asked the India Office in London and the (British) government of India to arrange for the return and resettlement of European ‘refugees’ in India. These people are referred to in British papers as ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘prisoners of war’, but also as refugees, especially once the First World War had ended. Many Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were kept out of the way in India, alongside civilian ‘enemy aliens’ who had previously been living there. Both were then united in camps as ‘internees’. Those who remained after the War were ‘repatriated’ to one of the new nation-states born after the breakup of Austria-Hungary, transforming from enemy aliens, to refugees, to Polish, Austrian or Hungarian citizens. Political dissidents who threatened the new governments of these states, however, could be denied entry, and it is unclear if they ever left the subcontinent.
While they were in India, these ‘refugee’ groups were confined to camps in places like Ahmednagar, Belgaum, and Yercaud. The more skilled amongst them were allowed to leave if they found a job, becoming part of the regular population of India, while the poor and uneducated were deliberately confined to maintain racial myths of superiority. Indians displaced by violent disturbances or natural disasters tended to be left to the mercies of community organisations and ancestral villages – even if they had never lived there – while the British Indian government supported refugee camps. To add insult to injury, although European ‘refugees’ were subject to the usual immigration conditions if they wished to leave India through means other than ‘repatriation’, the process was usually less expensive and had fewer barriers than for Indians moving as subject-citizens in that same Empire.
Who influenced the international community to endorse such decisions? The League of Nations could often condone the imperialisms of the Great Powers, particularly the French and British. India, though represented at the League, had a delegation chosen by the British. Thus, the international order that could recognise people as refugees was itself intertwined with the same imperialism that Indians experienced domestically. The other, more famously divisive bureaucratic category within the British Empire was that of the religious ‘minority’, a category that nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru saw operating similarly in India as it did in Palestine to perpetuate imperial control. The consequences of those category-based Divide and Rule policies need no repeating, and it is no surprise that other, sometimes arbitrary, categories could arouse great suspicion.
Hierarchies of discrimination among people on the move became clearer by the Second World War, even as the Cripps mission was sent to India to discuss reforms for a free post-War India. The British Indian government used the same terms for groups in drastically different circumstances. In 1942, for instance, as the Japanese gained ground, Europeans and Indians fled from Burma. These ‘evacuees’ were treated differently on the basis of race: the government gave Europeans better escape routes, found them homes, gave them assistance to start businesses, and even provided them with servants. Indians, on the other hand, tended to be left to their own devices, under the assumption far-flung kin would step in to provide support. Nehru criticised this as an imperial arrogance, and told Stafford Cripps that his skepticism of the British war effort was prompted by such discriminatory actions.
Indian experiences of differing, arbitrary uses of such categories shaped its leaders’ approaches to movement in the post-1945 world order of the United Nations, as they feared continued impositions despite formal decolonisation. In British India, it was evident that international recognition and government assistance followed the priorities of the sovereign entity making such decisions, reinforcing imperial hierarchies within India’s borders. In contrast, Indian migrants faced efforts by the same government to limit their rights and mobilities, and it seemed inescapable that this had to do with the politics of the global colour line. By 1946, the Indian nationalist-led interim government had decided to remove itself from UNRRA and its successor, the IRO, as I have explained elsewhere. Viewing worldwide asylum and immigration structures (and rejections of them) in the long term exposes how overt exclusions and exploitation have informed their development.
This series centres the ways we choose to label or legitimise experiences of ‘refugees’, condemn ‘economic migrants’ or worse, ‘illegal immigration’, and the ways in which we privilege ‘good migrants’ over others, even in a world increasingly coming to terms with institutions built on colonial and imperial pasts. In an era where those fleeing Myanmar are turned away or not recognised as refugees, or as boats carrying migrants are the site of a crisis in European waters, how and why do we (and the institutions that represent us) respond to and remember Moving People in the ways we do?
Ria Kapoor is an Editorial Fellow at History Workshop Online and a Teaching Fellow in South Asian History at the University of Leeds. Her work focuses on refugees, rights and the ‘Global South’, with her doctoral dissertation focusing on India’s conception of the refugee regime. Besides completing work on a book based on her previous research, she is beginning a new project on the worldwide impact of the Ugandan Asian Expulsion of 1972. She is interested in histories of moving people and the ideas surrounding them, studying humanitarian actions through a global lens, and Afro-Asian connections. Ria is also an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck and Fellow of the Raphael Samuel History Centre.