Going and Coming Back

A leaked report and a conversation with her father lead Beauty Dhlamini to reflect on the generational legacies of Britain's racist immigration legislation.

11 min read

At the end of May, a report commissioned by the Home Office, the ‘Windrush Lessons Learned Review’, was leaked. According to the Guardian, the report concludes that, “during the period 1950-1981, every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin who were permitted to live and work in [Britain]”. For the Home Office to acknowledge this—albeit internally, and 40 years after the fact—is clearly worthy of note (although what civil servants are meant to do with this information remains unclear).

But for minoritised communities in Britain—those who have been on the sharp end of decades of immigration legislation—this wasn’t news. We have been living it for generations; these experiences have been shared and passed down in our families. They shaped and limited the lives of my great-grandmother (who came to Britain in 1978, the year Margaret Thatcher declared that a Conservative government would “hold out the promise of an end to immigration”) and my father (who left Namibia for Britain in 2000), just as they now shape and limit my own life.

Immigration legislation did not, of course, miraculously transform in 1981 into something benign and welcoming. Take the recently-passed Nationality and Borders Bill, and particularly Clause 9, which has attracted considerable outrage. This clause builds on then-Home Secretary Theresa May’s Immigration Act 2014 (itself rooted in the British Nationality Act 1981), which granted the state the power to strip a naturalised British citizen of their citizenship on the basis that they could, in theory, be eligible to apply for citizenship elsewhere. When Clause 9 becomes law, the Government will be able to strip people of their British citizenship without notifying them, if they do not deem it “reasonably practicable” to do so. In practice, this means that great swathes of the population might wake up one morning, or return from a holiday, to find that they are no longer citizens—because the Government has decided that they pose a threat to national security, diplomatic relations, or some other vaguely-defined ‘public interest’.

Unsurprisingly, this will disproportionately affect minoritised citizens. Research for the New Statesman found that “non-white ethnic minority residents are eight times more likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship than white residents of all backgrounds,” and that “half of all Asian British people in England and Wales are likely to be eligible (50 per cent), along with two in five black Britons (39 per cent).”

For those of us who have been on the sharp end of decades of immigration legislation, this isn’t news. We have been living it for generations.

Senior officials (including human rights advocates and Opposition politicians) and the public alike have warned that this Bill will render minoritised people second-class citizens—a vulnerability which is deeply-felt among our communities. It would be wrong to glibly dismiss Clause 9 as just more of the same: it represents a real intensification within a context that is, both legally and culturally, increasingly racist and anti-migrant. Nevertheless, if the ‘Windrush scandal’ cannot be detached from the fundamental racism of all immigration legislation since (at least) 1950, neither can Clause 9. Even in 1962—sixteen years (and several increasingly racist immigration acts) before my great grandmother came to Britain—Claudia Jones was arguing that the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill 1962 would, by “restrict[ing] immigration of coloured citizens,” make “the majority [of the Commonwealth] second class citizens.”

The traumatic effects of immigration legislation on generations of minoritised people are not some unfortunate, unintended by-product. The trauma is often the point. Central to the ‘hostile environment’ was the idea that, if the state could make life sufficiently unpleasant for migrants with an irregular status, those migrants would spare the state the expense and legal bother of deporting them by choosing to leave of their own volition (though a choice made under such conditions is clearly not a free choice). Equally the unspeakably cruel ‘offshoring’ of asylum seekers to Rwanda is explicitly intended to discourage those who have every right to seek asylum from attempting to do so in Britain.

The traumatic effects of immigration legislation are not some unfortunate, unintended by-product. The trauma is often the point.

Citizens of elsewhere

Africans, particularly West Africans, began to emigrate to Britain during the 1990s and 2000s, about 30 years after their Caribbean counterparts. This coincided with a shift in the British state’s approach to migration during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. Having promised to ‘strengthen Britain’s economy’, the Blair government desperately needed cheap labour in order to do so. Hoping to encourage migrants from the global majority to come and work in Britain, they overhauled the visa process with the aim of creating a stream of exploitable labour across a range of fields and abilities. As A. Sivanandan (writing about the post-war influx of migrants who helped, amongst other things, build and staff the nascent NHS) has noted: “it was their labour that was wanted, not their presence.” At the same time, Blair increased spending on border security, investing in technologies such as biometrics—all part of a vision of ‘identity management’ that processes each person as they move in and out of British borders. Exploited and surveilled, the lives of African migrants and their families are not fully their own.

For most of us, even though we may have been born here or moved here as very young children, we continue to be relegated to a second-tier category of citizenship. The Nationality and Borders Bill will intensify this still further. Three generations of my family have now been subjected to this second-class status, both legally and “culturally”. Our Britishness is constantly questioned, and it is frequently implied that we are citizens of somewhere else.

“There is no life in this country”

My father, Silas Dhlamin, was among the Blair-era African migration wave. In 2000, he left Namibia —where he had been living since 1998, as a refugee from apartheid in his native South Africa—and came to Britain. I invited him to reflect on the Nationality and Borders Bill, and on his experiences as an African migrant in Britain, and he shared his thoughts with me:

There are several motivating factors which us, as Africans to migrate, but in Western countries it’s often attached to the economy – economic migrants, as they like to call us. Whilst there may be some truth to it, lot of us can resonate with other factors which include accessing, opportunities and ‘better’ education for ourselves and our children. Leaving my family and everything I know was not a decision taken lightly, but it is one I made primarily for these reasons; with the hope that future generations of my family will have a much better life than I have.

The expectation compared to the reality of migrating and trying to build a life in this country is one that is severely disappointing. There is no life in this country, because when you come here you are not seen as an equal but as a subordinate. You work to survive, not to enjoy. To take one step forward you are forced to take 10 steps backwards.

Our degrees are rendered useless here, and unless you have the money and mostly the ability to swallow your pride and go back to school you can get stuck in a cycle of menial jobs. Many of us must make ends meet, by any means possible. Even though I had a degree by the time I got here, and had studied professional courses, I had to go back to school. It’s why you will see African elders waking up at 5am to complete shift work. There is nothing wrong with working a job, but the fact we are almost always automatically reduced in the socioeconomic hierarchy already tells you how this country sees us.

I have lived through and witnessed with my own eyes, my friends being deported and detained. News of their disappearances whispered in church pews, barbershops and in the market. Our community lending each other money, to appeal yet another visa rejection despite wasting our lives on this island. Our friends die from preventable diseases and illnesses, out of fear of accessing health services—many of them not knowing their rights and entitlement to the NHS. We desperately try to hide these things from our children, but they grow up speaking amongst themselves about it—immigration raids, lack of funds for university fees, not being able to go on school trips because of the colour of their passports. Even though we’re all angry, it’s not easy to speak up because we live in fear that it could be us next. As migrants, even if we have all the required paperwork, we constantly live in precarity.

I know I will not stay in this country forever, and I cannot wait to return. I did not want to be seen as a failure when I was younger, so I didn’t go back. I had people depending on me, not just my immediate family but my whole family too. I had to work and send money back. If I did not do that, what would happen to them?

Now, I don’t care. I say this acknowledging it is coming from privilege, and it comes with reinforcing inequalities where I’m from, but my standard of living would be so much better. This Bill is nothing new when it comes to our experiences as migrants in this country, but I feel sorry and scared for my children. Despite their successes, it feels as if everything I have endured in this country was for nothing, because their standard of living is only marginally better than mine. I sometimes think to myself; I should have never come here. I should have never left back home and subjected my children to the same struggles as me.

My father’s admission—“I should never have come here”—is shocking, but his experiences and feelings mirror my own.

We lend each other money to appeal yet another visa rejection, despite wasting our lives on this island. Our friends die from preventable diseases out of fear of accessing health services.

The West presents itself as a ‘land of opportunity’, where education, employment prospects, and social mobility are better than anywhere else. In reality, the West has monopolised and stolen these opportunities from the global south. We cannot understand the West’s position as a desirable destination for migrants without considering the current world-system, where wealth (and the opportunities which flow from wealth) continue to be extracted from ex-colonies. Imperialism concentrates opportunity and wealth in its core, destabilising and impoverishing the states from which it plundered the wealth in the first place. When we take this into consideration, the presumed distinction (made frequently by the state, the media, and even migrant rights campaigners) between ‘economic migrant’ and ‘refugee’ dissolves.

The imagery that comes with this concentration of wealth in Britain only reinforces to people ‘back home’ that it is better to be here than there. But, in truth: it is not.

Despite having achieved everything my dad sought out for me, especially a good education, I see no change in my standard of living. The general lack of opportunities and the rapidly-decreasing calibre of living conditions (especially for minoritised young people) is shaped largely by racism and systemic discrimination that has been normalised by immigration policies. The reality, as my dad confirmed, is that I could live a much better life if I was to go back. As the cost of living rises, being here gets that much harder. The ‘better life’ my father imagined for me seems as if it will never materialise.

I know a lot of us can relate to the ways that, growing up, our parents continuously reminded us that one day we may be kicked out of this country. This attitude is unsurprising, given the racism, poverty, and anti-migrant hostility to which first- and second-generation Africans have been subjected in Britain. Now that I am an adult, I realise why our elders made so many investments ‘back home’. They built homes, they sent things back, they tried their luck at starting businesses—all while working for the British economy, too.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed everything my dad described. When I realised it, I felt incredibly sad. Nothing has changed. Last year alone, we witnessed several deportations, including three charter flights to Jamaica. There were stories about plans to use sonic booms against dinghies full of desperate people, and the Government trailed the idea of offshore detention centres in Ghana, Rwanda, and Libya, one of which has now become a reality. The hostile environment is a cumulation of the disrespectful treatment that generations of us have experienced in this country.

Imperialism concentrates opportunity and wealth in its core, destabilising and impoverishing the states from which it plundered the wealth in the first place.

Going ‘home’?

Africans across generations have started to return to their homelands. Those of us who still here are also starting to considering this seriously. On Twitter, I have noticed younger diasporans starting to talk about the issue, thinking about they want to ultimately settle, and where they can build a life. Conversations are starting on ‘homecoming’ topics, from how we can acquire passports from our ancestral countries, to what it would mean to completely uproot and leave Britain for good. For all the talk of ‘opportunity’, a happy and successful professional, personal and social life feels more possible in Africa than it does here.

There are still uncertainties, though. Recurrent questions trouble our minds: can I (re)adapt to the environment? Is it a good choice? Why not stay a few more years here? Why should I go back? What problems am I adding to if I go back? Is it worth compromising the livelihoods of people back home, just for the comfort of a better standard of living?

These are generational questions, too. The diaspora is often disconnected from the reality of what life in Africa is like for the average African, both economically and socially. Routines and practices change, too. It may be different there now. At the end of the day, there is the risk of not feeling at home, even if we do “go back to where we came from”.

The Black British community gives me hope. We have stopped raids and deportations. There are no limits to what we can do.

Solidarity and belonging.

The question is no longer as simple as just: stay or return? Whatever we choose, the decision may be taken out of our hands at any time. Britain is the only country that can currently make its citizens stateless without notice. Being denied access to the basic human right of secure citizenship has already has profound and devastating consequences for thousands of people.

Clause 9 renders explicit all of the fear and suspicion that has been the reality of minoritised people’s experience in this country. It affirms that, in the eyes of the state, we never truly belonged.

Over the last few months, I have been given hope by the actions of the Black British community in opposing the sentiments—and the laws—that feed into this Bill. Campaigners are sharing resources and information, funding bail for those in immigration detention, and creating templates for the less-politicised to quickly email their MPs. Through a combination of advocacy, direct action, and constant pressure on the Government, we have stopped raids and deportations. There are no limits to what we can do.

We must continue working in solidarity to oppose every element of the racist Nationality and Borders Bill whilst we still can. After all, we have a right to be here.


Beauty Dhlamini (@BeautyDhlamini)

Beauty Dhlamini is a global health scholar with a focus on health inequalities. She writes a column for Tribune, and co-hosts the podcast Mind the Health Gap.