Refugee Law and Policy: United Kingdom

Last Updated: 17 Jun 2020
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Policy and practice on asylum and immigration in Britain, in particularly through legislation, have tended to be predisposed towards racial discrimination. The term ‘race’ is commonly used to refer to physical differences such as skin colour. However, shifts in the meaning of racism tend to reveal it is increasingly experienced by those who are isolated from the nation due to their non-citizen status within a nation. In the UK, the proportion of non-UK born population has risen from 7% in 1991 to 13% (Office for National Statistics, 2011). Despite the increase, ethnic minorities remain a relatively small proportion of the UK population. In light of increased migration and the benefits of migration from increased economic activity and cultural diversity (Home Office, 2002), it is thus important to critically engage in the debates about whether asylum and immigration policy and practice have been ‘racialised’. As this essay focuses on the concept of racism, the definition of racism will be explored to begin with. This will involve accounting for its long history including the influence of Christianity, the Enlightenment period, the emergence of the slave trade, scientific theories, colonialism and more contemporary definitions that have developed in the aftermath of the MacPherson report. This will be followed by a discussion of the ways in which these definitions have influenced immigration legislation between the 1960s and the 1980s as well as the recent wave of asylum legislation that Britain experienced in the 1990s. The control of white immigration in Britain will be considered as a challenge towards the claim that immigration and asylum policy has been racialised. However, this will be flipped on its head with evidence suggesting that white immigrants still experienced stigmatisation. It will become overwhelmingly apparent that asylum and immigration policy and practice is still mired by racism due to the identification of group boundaries.

At the foremost, an analysis of the concept of racism and its varied definitions needs to be made in order to inform a discussion of asylum and immigration law, policy and practice. Its meaning has shifted in different ways throughout history which indicates racism is a complex social construct. The term race entered the English language in 1508. There were no significant implications of inferiority of races because “the Bible was accepted as the authority on human affairs” (Banton, 1998, p.17) and therefore it was commonly believed that all humans descended from Adam and Eve. Any difference that may exist between people was regarded as the result of geographic and environmental factors.

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During the Enlightenment period, it became important to classify people. Linnaeus divided homo sapiens into 6 categories although only 4 are racially significant. He described americanus as red, choleric and erect; europaeus as white, and muscular; asiaticus as yellow, melancholic and inflexible, and fourthly afer as black, phlegmatic and indulgent (1735, cited in Banton, 1998, p. 20). The use of skin colour as the basis for classifying people became even more prominent in defining race as capitalism developed, and brought the need to address the shortage of labour through the slave trade. The concept of blackness was full of meaning – it symbolized dirty, foul, wicked and malignant which was juxtaposed against the association of ‘white’ with purity. As a result, Bulmer and Solomos observe that this may explain “why black Africans…were thought particularly suited to being enslaved, and how justifications for the slave trade were often couched in this way…” (1999, p. 59).

Scientific theories of race had also emerged in the late 19th century. Charles Darwin theorised that Africans were related to Europeans and that all humans descended from apes. He claimed that differences and varieties in species were due to “maintenance or elimination of these varieties by natural selection” (Solomos and Black, 1996. p. 44). Although Darwin’s theory did not confirm the hierarchal structure of race but rather challenged the fixity of species, his ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest were reworked to signify that the struggle between the races best represents the survival of the fittest amongst humans in order to accommodate colonialist and imperialist ideologies (Solomos and Back, 1996). Colonialism employed similar images as slavery previously did but encompassed a different approach. Rather than the nature of the inferior races being rigid, black Africans and Asians were considered as needing help to move away from their primitive cultures and become civilised which only the civilised White were able to offer to them (Lawrence, 1982).

The decolonisation period saw an increase in immigration from colonies and ex-colonies of Britain, due to labour shortages and the need to rebuild the country in the aftermath of the Second World War. In contrast, the post-decolonisation period brought with it the idea that Blacks and Asians did not belong in Britain. Both Lawrence (1982) and Hall (2000) observe that this period is characterised by ‘historical forgetfulness’ of the Empire and the ‘collective amnesia’ of British society respectively due to the sudden uncertainty around where these immigrants came from and why. This demonstrates that the concept of racism shifted from one where black people can be ‘owned’ through slavery because of their inferiority to something where they can be used as required and then thrown away when no longer needed.

Physical differences are still prominently present in more recent contemporary definitions of race. According to the MacPherson Report, racism “consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin” (Home Office, 1999, para. 6.4). Comparatively, Pilkington (2003) defines racism as identifying groups who are perceived to have biological differences between each other which are maintained throughout generations. These differences allow for a representation of ‘others’ based on negative features and inferiority which results in group boundaries. It gives way to the idea that to preserve one’s identity, the identities of others need to be belittled.

Upon reflecting upon the numerous definitions of race throughout history, it is apparent the concept of racism is a social construct. Since Linneaus’ (1735, cited in Banton, 1998) classification of people, physical differences remain a major component to defining racism even to this day. It will become clear that these definitions of racism, particularly those that were developed within the context of capitalism, colonialism, post-colonialism as well as in the aftermath of the MacPherson Report, inform the rest of the discussion and debate around contemporary policy and practice.

Within policy and practice, racism has certainly played a significant role in immigration legislation from the 1960s. The various legislations introduced a series of measures to control immigration from the New Commonwealth through redefining citizenship. With a significant wave of immigration in the 1950s from the New Commonwealth, the government made the first attempt to control immigration through the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 (Solomos, 2003). It required Commonwealth citizens who were neither born in the UK nor held, or were included, in a passport issued in the UK to obtain labour vouchers. The implications of using immigration to address labour shortages during the post-war period is apparent here and how the government in particular forgot about their responsibilities towards the welfare of migrants; migrants who were encouraged to come to the UK but suddenly seemed to have appeared from nowhere (Lawrence 1972; Hall 2000) when they were no longer of any use. While this implicitly was justified as a way of controlling immigrations, this undermined civil rights of black settlers who had their passports issued outside of the UK (Solomos, 2003). It is thus evident that the 1962 Commonwealth Act was racially discriminatory in particularly against black settlers.

Similarly, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and 1971 Immigration Act introduces ‘patriality’ where all citizens who were not born in the UK or do not have a UK grandparent/parent, were subject to control. This particularly had an impact upon Africans and Asians as it denied almost all non-white commonwealth citizens the right to enter and settle in Britain while it did not have the same or similar negative impact upon White Commonwealth citizens (Solomos, 2003). The latter legislation further introduced the control of secondary immigration which limited the reunification of migrants with their families. This meant that Black and Asian people experienced delays and separation that would not have been acceptably imposed upon White families (Parekh, 2000, p. 208). Thus, it is further evident that immigration policy and practice in Britain was influenced by concepts of racism that were contextualised in the period of post-colonialism.

In addition, the 1981 Nationality Act deprived British citizens of Asian origin, who were effectively categorised as British Overseas Citizens, the right to live in the UK. Skellington and Morris’ observation confirms that the impact of such immigration legislations had resulted in a reduction of migrants from New Commonwealth and Pakistan countries; from 136 000 in 1961 to 68 00 in 1972 and astonishingly to 22 800 by 1988 (1996, p. 69). Consequently, it further compounds upon the argument that up to this point, immigration policy and legislation was coloured by racism.

In more recent times, there has been an emergence of multicultural and anti-racist approaches in policy and practice to address racism. As a result of the MacPherson Report in 1999, which brought institutional racism to the forefront, the government made an attempt to bring all its activities within the remit of the Race Relations Act (Parekh, 2000, p. 217). However, the government has not gone far enough in its efforts. Parekh stresses that immigration, nationality and asylum law was exempted as the Home Secretary and his officials under his direction had the power to discriminate on grounds of nationality and ethnic origin (2000, p. 217). The wave of asylum legislation from the 1990s introduced measures to reduce the number of asylum seekers and refugees claiming sanctuary. In particularly, the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act enforced a housing dispersal system scattering asylum seekers across the country and further introduced a voucher system. The result was that it led to stigmatisation of asylum seekers, racist violence and left many people with limited language skills and lack of support in areas of Britain which are not ethnically diverse (Solomos, 2003). Effectively, it encouraged notions of asylum seekers as not deserving the support of communities and without any protection. The way that racism played out in the context of capitalism and slavery is in a similar sense prevalent here. While black Africans were perceived as foul, malignant, and wicked during these periods, asylum seekers are now to the same extent prejudged as bogus and deceiving. In other words, ‘foreigners’ cannot be trusted because their only interests are supposedly to swamp the country.

The issue of white immigration, however, challenges the contention of policy and practice as racialised. Technically, asylum and immigration policy, as discussed above, applies to all who immigrate or seek asylum regardless of race and colour – whether they are from Europe, Asia or Africa. Although Immigrants have been significantly White from European countries and Old Commonwealth countries such as Australia (Skellington and Morris, 1996), Britain has also been recently concerned about white immigration which can be illustrated by its response to the EU’s incorporation of the ‘Schengen acquis’ which generally allows free movement of people within the internal EU frontier in order for the EU to function as one. Britain has rather negotiated a special opt-out protocol from the common EU immigration and asylum policies which permits Britain to selectively implement EU immigration policies (Flynn, 2005). Further, a need has emerged to address the rise of new opportunities to abuse immigration controls such as through smuggling. The government has thereby been investing in the use of advanced technologies such as heartbeat sensors that would indicate the presence of humans (Home Office, 2002). This demonstrates that Britain wants to control not only ‘white immigration’ but even immigration in general and therefore challenges the idea that immigration and asylum policies have been racialised.

However, racism is not necessarily based upon colour as such an argument like this seems to assume. Pilkington notes that, despite being White, the Irish and Jewish groups who migrated in the 19th century were seen as an inferior race in Britain (Pilkington, 2003, p.15). In a similar sense, asylum seekers who may be largely from Britain may also be seen as an inferior race due to their lack of ‘Britishness’ and a preconception that they do not belong to the British nation. It is thus apparent that the definition of racism as defined in the MacPherson Report to include culture and ethnic origin echoes strongly in the phenomenon of white immigration. The process of drawing boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Pilkington, 2003) is also strongly evident here. This can be further demonstrated by the introduction of assessments of knowledge of UK life and English as well as citizenship ceremonies which are now part of the process to become a British citizen. These practices were established through the most recent Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. It suggests that the government is attempting to narrow the gap between ‘us’ and ‘others’ by requiring ‘others’ to assimilate into and adopt the ‘British’ culture. Assimilating ‘others’ into the British culture in turn also seems to similarly echo the idea found in definitions of racism during the colonialism period that sought to civilise the ‘inferior’. This clearly demonstrates the way in which traces of the concept of racism can be found in policy and practice in immigration and asylum even though it may no longer be recognised through differential treatment based on physical differences.


In conclusion, the ways that immigration and asylum policy and practice in particularly through legislation has been racialised is not through one single discourse. The social construct of racism has changed vastly depending upon the predominant ideology of the time, whether within historical periods or more contemporary times. Although there have been some moments where ‘racial’ differences have been explained away by environmental factors, the social hierarchical structure of races has unfortunately been present throughout history and which undoubtedly has informed immigration and asylum policy and practice. Immigration legislation between the 60s and 80s was clearly based upon colour, controlling African and Asian immigration in the UK. While White immigrants groups may have found it easier to migrate to Britain, they still experienced being categorised as an inferior race. Although policy and practice on immigration and asylum is no longer explicitly mired by colour, it still has resulted in the stigmatisation of immigrants in the UK.

While such analysis illustrates how the concept of racism has informed and influenced immigration and asylum policy and practice, most people are not aware of how it reifies the impact of racism in contemporary society. For example, immigration and asylum policy that disproportionately affects ethnic minorities perpetuates a wealth of stereotypes ranging from Blacks are less intelligent, Asians are trapped by their backward ways of life and asylum seekers are scrounging off the British social welfare system. Even though terrorism policy needs to be explored in terms of how it may also inform debates about racism as it tends to target Muslims immigrating from Asia or the Middle East, the policies and practice examined in this essay have clearly shown that immigration and asylum policy and practice in Britain have been largely racialised. In a far more globalised world, immigration has ensured that every culture and race in existence has become much closer than was ever imaginable. The need to discuss the way that racism runs through immigration and asylum policies and practices is therefore now important more than ever because it challenges societies like Britain which are championed as multicultural societies for all. It determines how fellow members of society are treated, by putting many at a disadvantage through discrimination and by highlighting how they are different. By analysing such debates, we can shape social constructs such as race in ways that encourage equality, respect and dignity.


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Bulmer, M., and Solomos, J., (1999), Racism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flynn, D., (2005) “New Borders, New Management: The Dilemmas of Modern Immigration Policies” in Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 28 No. 3. pp. 463-490.

Hall, S., (2000) “The Multicultural Question”, in Hesse, B., (ed.), Un/Settled Multiculturalisms, London: Zed Press.

Home Office (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. The Stationary Office. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 21st March 2012).

Home Office (2002) White Paper: Secure Borders, Safe Haven. The Stationary Office.

Lawrence, E., (1982) “Just Plain Commonsense: the “roots” of racism”, in CCCS The Empire Strikes Back. London: Hutchinson.

Office for National Statistics (2011) 2011 Census shows non-UK born population of England and Wales continues to rise. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 21st March 2012).

Parekh, B. (2000) The Parekh Report: The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. London: Profile.

Pilkington, A. (2003) Racial Disadvantage and Ethnic Diversity in Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Skellington, R. and Morris, P. (1996) ‘Race’ in Britain Today (2nd Edition). London: Sage.

Solomos (2003) Race and Racism in Britain (3rd Edition). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Refugee Law and Policy: United Kingdom. (2018, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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