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© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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Palestinian refugee women

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Detention Camps in Europe, 2005

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© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.


The UK is one of Europe’s major destinations for immigrants, with net immigration standing at around 200,000 per annum for the last decade. This entry provides a brief overview of the history of immigration during the second half of the twentieth century, before outlining the major policy developments of the last ten years.

Historical Background 

The Second World War marked a watershed in the history of immigration to the UK. In the aftermath of the war, like many other European countries the UK faced substantial labour shortages. The post-war government initially sought to attract migrant workers from within Europe, with schemes such as the European Volunteer Workers programme, and to a limited extent by recruitment from its colonies, famously for workers in the newly founded National Health Service. However, unlike other European countries, the UK did not develop large-scale ‘guestworker’ programmes to recruit from overseas. Rather, most immigration during the 1950s and 1960s unfolded spontaneously as migrants from the Caribbean, South Asia, and parts of Africa made their way to the imperial ‘motherland’. This was not a wanted, and certainly not an encouraged, migration flow. On the contrary, post-war governments – both Labour and Conservative – repeatedly discussed how to restrict colonial immigration and in the 1950s deployed administrative measures in an attempt to stem the flow; legislation was also considered as early as 1955.

The main reason legislation was not passed at this time was largely due to imperial realpolitik – a concern not to alienate recently independent countries at a time when the UK was trying to replace formal empire with an informal sphere of influence through the Commonwealth. The central problem was the 1948 British Nationality Act, which had created a remarkably broad citizenship category, Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC), which extended residency rights to all colonial subjects. At the time, mass immigration had not been foreseen, but this legislation now acted as a constraint on attempts to control immigration of CUKCs.

Two factors shifted the balance in favour of control. Firstly, as decolonization advanced, the geopolitical argument against restricting colonial immigration diminished. Secondly, domestic politics pushed towards restriction. Immigration was vocally opposed by some MPs – mostly notoriously the Conservative MP Enoch Powell – and a growing fear of social unrest spread amongst the political class. Public opinion was not receptive to immigration and events such as the 1958 ‘race riots’ conjured up spectres of US-style racial conflict. During the 1960s, the tone of policy debate was overwhelmingly one of control. Indeed, all of the major pieces of immigration legislation during this period (1962, 1968 and 1971) had a restrictive intent, and were specifically intended to restrict the flow of black and Asian colonial immigrants, as opposed to Irish or other white immigrants.

Thus politics, rather than economics, drove the UK to restrict post-war immigration. For the following two decades it was comparatively successful at doing so. Immigration did not stop altogether during the 1970s and 1980s, but numbers were reduced and the composition of migration flows shifted towards family immigrants. The major piece of legislation during this period, the 1981 British Nationality Act, finally overhauled the 1948 legislation and defined British citizenship in a narrow, post-imperial way. Immigration legislation of the period focused on imposition of visa regimes and the development of carrier sanctions in an attempt to limit asylum-seeking migration.

Despite the successive restrictions, immigration had nevertheless transformed the UK. In 1951, the ethnic minority population was estimated at about 50,000. By 2001, it was 4 million or 7.1 per cent of the total population. The largest groups were migrants of Indian, Pakistani, black Caribbean, black African, and Bangladeshi origin. Although migration flows have diversified today, the imperial legacy remains clear in the ethnic composition of British society. 

Immigration Policy under Labour 

Arguably the second watershed in immigration to the UK was the election of the Labour government in 1997. It has overhauled UK immigration policy, passing several major pieces of legislation which have transformed the immigration system. All of this has taken place in an highly politicised context: immigration has become a mainstay of the mass media, with some tabloid newspapers displaying a near obsession with immigrants and so-called ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers; public opinion on immigration is sceptical; and immigration has periodically flared up as a subject of party political competition, perhaps most notably in the Conservative Party’s unsuccessful 2005 general election campaign. More recently, the British National Party’s success in the 2009 European Parliament elections (it returned two MEPs) has re-ignited the immigration debate. Whilst the anti-immigrant far right is not yet represented in the national parliament, as it is in several other European countries, support for the BNP has increased in recent years.

Economic Migration

Under Labour, the UK has developed an active approach to economic migration, or as it has come to be labelled, ‘managed migration’. From 2001, the government began to encourage economic migrants through a number of policy changes which liberalised access to the UK labour market for foreign nationals. These policies included the creation of a new Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP) and a conscious expansion of the existing work permits system by relaxation of the criteria needed to gain a permit. The numbers entering through the HSMP grew rapidly, reaching 17,631 in 2005, while the number of approved work permit holders (including dependants) increased from 62,975 in 1997 to 137,035 in 2005. Low-skilled migration was also encouraged through the existing Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) and the newly created Sector Based Scheme. In 2005, the former attracted 15,455 persons, while the latter, which was specifically for the hotel and food-processing sectors, attracted 7,401 persons.

These were major policy developments, but their impact on migration flows paled in comparison to the government’s decision to open the labour market to citizens of the A8 countries following EU enlargement in 2004. The UK was one of only three member states not to impose transitional restrictions at this time (most other countries have since lifted their restrictions) which led to one of the largest flows of immigrants in British history. Between May 2004 and December 2006, a staggering 579,000 A8 citizens registered with the government, 65 percent of whom were Polish.

In 2008, a new points-based system, modelled on the Australian General Skilled Migration programme, replaced the various immigration routes and categories. The system has five tiers: Tier 1 for highly-skilled workers; Tier 2 for sponsored skilled workers; Tier 3 for low skilled workers; Tier 4 for international students; and Tier 5 for various categories of temporary workers. Applicants for entry clearance through any of the tiers need to accumulate a certain number of points which are allocated according to different criteria within each tier. As of 2009, Tiers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are in operation, but Tier 3 is closed for the foreseeable future as the government argues that all of the UK’s low-skilled needs can be met by migration from within the EU, especially the post-2004 member states. One notable innovation under this system is the creation of a Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) which provides twice yearly advice to the government on shortage occupations to inform the allocation of points for Tier 2 applicants.


While Labour has overseen an expansion of economic immigration to the UK, it has been altogether more restrictive towards other types of migrants, especially asylum seekers. Indeed, Labour has made it a key goal to reduce the number of asylum claims and clear the backlog of unresolved claims. Asylum applications in 1997 stood at 32,500, increasing to a peak of 84,130 in 2002, before declining to 23,430 in 2007. The latest figures, for 2008, show a slight increase to 25,930 

Asylum policies developed during the last ten years include measures to deter unfounded claims, to make the UK a less ‘attractive’ country in which to claim asylum, to reduce the time it takes to process claims, and to remove more failed asylum seekers. Tougher border controls (see below) are one facet of this policy. The government has also reduced the welfare support available to asylum seekers, for example through the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act which withdrew support from various categories of claimant and reduced the overall level of benefits. This policy was officially intended to reduce alleged ‘pull factors’, but it was also driven by political considerations given the hysterical anti-asylum coverage in some parts of the media, especially around the time of the Sangatte crisis in 2002. In addition to reducing benefits for asylum seekers, the Labour government has also increased its use of controversial punitive measures to remove failed asylum seekers: expanding the use of detention centres and stepping up its use of both deportation and voluntary return.

It is notable that whilst the UK has generally been an awkward partner with regard to European Union (EU) migration policy initiatives (for example, the UK is not part of the Schengen free movement area and it secured the right to opt-out from migration policies under the Amsterdam Treaty), it has participated in most of the EU’s restrictive asylum measures. For example, the UK is a part of the Dublin system that requires asylum seekers to lodge a claim in the first European country they enter, which puts pressure on external border regimes to the south and east.

Borders and Irregular Migration 

Another area in which there has been substantial policy reform is border controls. Partly to reduce asylum claims, but also to tackle illegal or irregular border-crossings, the Labour government has extended the use of surveillance at ports of entry, imposed carrier sanctions, and extended the visa regime. A key aim has been to export the border so that passengers increasingly encounter immigration controls before they reach UK territory. One example is the juxtaposed immigration controls in Calais and Paris; another is the network of Airline Liaison Officers (ALOs) who pre-screen passengers before departure from certain countries of origin.

These measures have been underpinned by administrative reforms. Following the Home Secretary’s 2006 statement that the immigration bureaucracy was not ‘fit for purpose’, the former Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) was reorganised and renamed as the Borders and Immigration Agency in 2007, and then as the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) in 2008, revealing a shift in emphasis from immigration to border controls. The various immigration functions have been divided between different authorities, while UKBA has been established as a government agency with operational autonomy from the Home Office. The physical appearance of border controls at major ports of entry has been overhauled. Passengers arriving at UK airports now encounter large signs marking the ‘UK border’, in a bold blue and white colour scheme, as well as immigration officials in police-like uniforms, moreover with police-like powers of arrest.

The most recent development is the creation of the e-Borders programme which deploys biometric and information systems technologies to enhance border security. The central aim of the e-Borders programme is to collect and analyse information on everyone entering and leaving the UK, so that interventions can be targeted at movements that are assessed as high-risk. Once e-Borders is fully operational carriers will be legally required to collect biographical and travel information from passengers and submit it to UKBA before travel commences. These data will be used to create a comprehensive record of passenger movements, including individual travel histories, which will be risk-assessed and checked against existing watch-lists. Biometrics have also been harnessed to develop the UK’s ‘trusted traveller’ scheme, known as Project IRIS, which allows registered travellers to enter the UK through automated gates.

Integration and Citizenship 

Two other migration policy areas in which there has been major change over the last decade are integration and citizenship. Historically, immigrant integration in the UK has been viewed through the lens of ‘race relations’. This paradigm, developed from the 1960s onwards, conceived of integration primarily in terms of non-discrimination. This was legally enshrined though a number of Race Relations Acts which gradually extended protections against racial discrimination and established a race equality body to oversee the legislation. The race relations paradigm remains an important feature UK political discourse – for example, the Labour government passed a Race Relations (Amendment) Act in 2000 which recognised institutional racism and created a duty on public bodies actively to promote good race relations. However, at least three factors have shifted the integration debate away from a sole concern with race and towards issues around language, culture and social exclusion: firstly, the diversification of immigration flows to the UK; secondly, the rise of social tensions in some British cities, particularly in the north-west of England; and thirdly, the post-9/11 and 7/7 concerns over security which are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, about Muslims. For example, in the aftermath of 2001 riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, the government commissioned Ted Cantle to chair an inquiry. The subsequent Cantle Report identified segregation and ‘parallel lives’ led by different ethnic groups in some British cities as a cause of tensions which led to the government setting up a Community Cohesion Unit. In the wake of 7/7 it has also sought to engage with Muslim organisations on the issue of extremism.

Citizenship policy has also undergone substantial reform. The Labour government has adopted a range of measures to promote citizenship, including the introduction of citizenship classes in schools, as well as a number of policy developments around naturalization. In 2004, US-style citizenship ceremonies were introduced, and in 2005 the first citizenship and language tests were rolled out for those naturalizing as British citizens. This turn towards a more conscious discourse on citizenship and nationality, as well as the various policy innovations, marks a genuine departure in a country which has no established tradition of citizenship. More recently, the government has announced an extension of the points-based system to what it calls ‘earned citizenship’. Acquiring British citizenship will now have three stages (permanent residency, probationary citizenship, and British citizenship) with applicants proceeding from one stage to another by acquiring points for ‘different achievements’ such as demonstration of English language skills or ‘active citizenship’ in their community.


It is clear that UK immigration policy has undergone substantial changes in recent years. The predominant discourse for most of the second half of the twentieth century was one of immigration control, whereas today government officials are more likely to refer to ‘migration management’ (though it is notable that in the context of the economic recession and upcoming general election the phrase ‘controlling migration’ is once again cropping up in policy statements and speeches). Migration management implies a degree of openness towards, and indeed active encouragement of, certain types of ‘wanted’ migration, combined with restrictive measures towards other ‘unwanted’ types. In the former category are skilled, especially highly-skilled workers and international students, while the latter group includes irregular and asylum-seeking migrants. The UK has been at the cutting edge of policy reforms on both sides of this equation: developing some of the most active recruitment policies for highly-skilled labour migrants while introducing sometimes draconian measures towards asylum-seekers. In this respect the UK exemplifies a wider trend towards increased selectivity in migration policy.

Selected References 

Hampshire, J.: Citizenship and Belonging: Immigration and the Politics of Demographic Governance in Postwar Britain (Palgrave 2005).

Hansen, R.: Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Layton-Henry, Z.: From Immigration Control to Migration Management, in Wayne Cornelius et al (eds) Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective, 2nd edition, Stanford University Press 2004.

Somerville, W.: Immigration under New Labour (The Policy Press 2007).

James Hampshire, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, 2009