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Restrictions on British colonial migrants in an era of free movement: the case of Cyprus


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The controversy surrounding the ‘Windrush generation’ has cost the Home Secretary Amber Rudd her job and has seen intense criticism of the Conservative government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy towards migrants. One of the results of this policy has been the refusal of citizens’ rights to Commonwealth migrants who had entered the country prior to the enactment of the Immigration Act 1971. This denial of citizens’ rights to certain Commonwealth citizens, despite being fully entitled to it, for the purpose of immigration control has a much longer history. One that is often overlooked in the history of the control of Commonwealth migration is that of Cypriots coming to the UK in the inter-war period.

The British occupied Cyprus in 1878, but Cypriots did not become British subjects until 1914. It was only after 1914, once they had become British subjects, that Cypriots were legally allowed to enter, reside and work in the UK without restrictions. According to Robin Oakley, iIn 1921 the British census showed that there were only 316 Cypriots in England and Wales, but by 1931 there were 1,059. By the beginning of the Second World War, Oakley notes, there were between 7-8,000 Cypriots in the UK, mostly living within a small borough in the central West End of London. Most of these migrants were young Greek Cypriot men and were unskilled labourers, who ended up in the hospitality industry.

The British tried to prevent Cypriots from arriving in Britain because they saw the Cypriot community as posing a particular set of problems, namely perceived criminal activities and links to communism and anti-colonialism. During the earlier years of the inter-war period, the main concern of British authorities was the destitution of many Cypriots who required assistance to be repatriated. Later, criminal activities, including organised crime and murder, made the news. Then there was another group of Cypriots who were monitored for their communist activities.

The British authorities sought to restrict further numbers from immigrating to Britain through a number of measures, despite the fact that Cypriots were British subjects. This was done predominantly through the refusal to issue passports, as well as requesting that those travelling from the island pay a surety bond. The British limited the number of passports issued to Cypriots intending to travel to Britain. To obtain a passport for Britain, Cypriots had to pay a bond (in case they had to be repatriated).

While the British did issue passports to some Cypriots, they were reluctant to do so for those travelling to the UK from Cyprus (and vice versa), preferring them to travel to other places such as the United States or Egypt. For those already in the UK, limited passports were granted for travel back to Cyprus, but not for elsewhere within or outside the Empire – to avoid them eventually returning to the UK via a third country. The British were also strict on enforcing a condition of residency on those Cypriots applying for a British passport, requiring them to have resided on the island for a year before they could apply for status as a recognised British subject in Cyprus (and therefore eligible for a passport).

At this time, no other colonial group was subjected to such restrictions. The Colonial Office implemented the migration restrictions at the point of departure (i.e. in Cyprus). This was not because there was disagreement over trying to restrict Cypriots entering the UK, but because the Home Office did not want to implement a point of arrivals system. Restrictions at the point of arrival needed to be applied to all incoming migrants, while restrictions at point of departure could target specific nationalities and ethnic groups.

The British also explored other options to stop the flow of Cypriots to London. The Colonial Office asked the Home Office if legislation could be introduced to prevent Cypriots from migrating to Britain, but the Home Office refused. The Home Office told the Colonial Office that migration controls at the British port of entry could not be introduced to target Cypriots and that the government was not considering wider controls. However Cypriot authorities soon complained that many Cypriots obtained passports to travel to Greece or Egypt and then came to the UK, which saw further restrictions introduced. As Oakley has shown, by 1937, passports were only issued to applicants who could prove they could speak English, were able to a pay a bond of £30 and an affidavit showing they had employment in Britain. 

The outbreak of the Second World War stopped the movement of Cypriots to Britain on a significant scale, although migration restarted after the war. In this era of large scale African, Caribbean and Asian migration, Cypriots were seen as more ‘desirable’ and there was less hostility towards them than other Commonwealth migrants. Yet the restrictions imposed in the 1930s remained until the Commonwealth Immigrant Act of 1962.

John Solomos and Stephen Woodhams argued that the British used border control techniques first employed against Cypriots in the 1930s against broader Commonwealth migration in the 1960s. Viewing immigration as a social problem that needed limiting, the restrictions imposed on the Cypriots in the 1930s paved the way for the argument that ‘good race relations’ was achieved by ensuring that ethnic minorities remained as minorities and that strict immigration control was necessary to maintain this.

As Nadifa Mohamed has suggested, the ‘hostile environment’ policy of the Conservative government since 2010 has its origins in over a century of immigration control in Britain. The border control system has long been used to refuse entry, detain and deport those who have had a right to enter, work and reside in Britain. Our case study of the restrictions placed upon Cypriot colonial subjects from travelling to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s shows that the British had informally attempted to curtail ‘undesirable’ migration from the colonies much earlier than the better known similar attempts in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually the government implemented formal restrictions upon all Commonwealth migrants and the road to the modern British immigration control system began.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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