Unwanted migrants, state power, and the spaces in-between: Immigration control in practice in Britain and the British World in the interwar years

Session Abstract : In the present day, perhaps more than at any other point in history, immigration is at the heart of heated political, social and cultural debates about Britain and its place in the world. The role of illicit migration, the failings of the immigration system, and the limits of state power in the control of migration are particularly central. Historians have thus far made excellent contributions to debates about immigration in the modern British world, but have mostly focussed upon legal/licit migration, sponsored labour migration, the debate about immigration in the political and popular spheres, and the interaction of immigrant communities with host culture. Far less has been written on how laws and policies about migration have been put into practice. The three papers in this panel will explore different aspects of the ‘practice’ of border and migration control. Julia Laite will examine how policies against ‘marriages of convenience’, first used in the interwar years to prevent foreign prostitutes from entering the UK, grew to become one of the major ways in which migration is controlled. Jean Smith will examine the policies surrounding the deportation of mentally ill British-born migrants from Australia and South Africa, and the negotiations between the state and families that shaped these policies. Becky Taylor will take up the theme of migration control and ‘the unfit’ through a British lens, and discuss the how medical inspections in port cities were developed under the 1920 Aliens Act. These three papers will highlight the importance of the interwar period in developing modern immigration regimes, will explore state power and its limitations, and will examine the intimate policing of migration. All three are especially interested in the spaces in between official laws and unofficial practice, as interwar immigration regimes encountered the complexities of local and international politics, and the intimate and resilient lives of migrants themselves.

Session Chair: David Feldman, Birkbeck

Paper 1 Abstract : Marriages of Convenience, Illicit Migration, and the Surveillance of Citizens

Julia Laite, Birkbeck

Throughout the 1930s, London Metropolitan Police had only to write ‘the notorious Larseneur case’ to communicate their frustrations about policing foreign prostitutes. Marie Larsseneur, brought up before the magistrate on charges of soliciting prostitution in the West End in 1928, was slated for deportation under the proviso of the 1920 Act. However, before police could escort her to her ship she circumvented the deportation order by marrying a British national. The police bristled as they watched her declare her relationship with a man she clearly did not know, and would not see again. It was to be the first of many such ‘marriages of convenience’, as the police came to call them, between foreign prostitutes and British men in the interwar years. While reform organizations declared them to be a form of trafficking, the police slowly developed policies for proving these marriages fraudulent which, while not always successful, would come to dramatically reshape migration and citizenship policies in Britain for the next century and beyond.
On the one hand, the only partially successful campaign against marriages of convenience in 1920s and 1930s Britain can be read as another interesting chapter in what is now a very well established story of state authorities using ‘trafficking’ as a discourse in order to crack down on illicit migration. But the difficulties that arose when trying to tackle these cases also illustrates the way in which anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution initiatives were inextricably entangled not only with women’s migration but women’s status as citizens and the role that the state could and should play in managing people’s intimate relationships. This paper will explore the curious beginnings of a cornerstone in modern immigration policy, used today to police and control illicit migrants, asylum seekers, skilled migrants, and British citizens alike.


Paper 2 Abstract : ‘To that part of the Commonwealth to which they properly belong’: The deportation of British-born migrants from mental hospitals in interwar Australia and South Africa

Jean Smith, Uni of Leeds

This paper examines the process by which non-domiciled British-born migrants were deported from two mental hospitals, Callan Park in Sydney and Valkenberg in Cape Town in the 1920s and 1930s, under legislation better known for its exclusion of Asian immigrants. It highlights the convergence in the ways in which these two settler colonial states aimed to remove those, who though ‘European’ who did not fit their settler ideal. It also traces how such immigration regulations were refracted through the process of attempted implementation. Officials frequently had difficulty in determining the nationality, domicile or even identity of patients, many of whom had complicated histories of migration within and beyond the British Empire. Mental hospital records, supplemented where possible with official deportation paperwork, also demonstrate the ways in which these migrants and their families were able to navigate, with varying degrees of success, the regulatory mechanisms of both the asylum and the state. Though the ability of the asylum and state officials in Australia and South Africa to exert control over patients is clear, so too are the limits of that control. This was especially true in the case of deportation, which removed patients from the controlled space of the hospital and the jurisdiction of individual nation states. The often inconclusive and ambiguous implementation of a seemingly straightforward immigration policy also speaks to the problem of defining nationality and identity in the interwar Dominions and the tension between the rhetorically unifying imperial ideology of British race patriotism and its often exclusionary national expression.


Paper 3 Abstract : The 1920 Aliens’ Order, Medical Examinations and the Limitations of the State in England.

Becky Taylor, University of East Anglia

This paper considers the medical measures of the 1920 Aliens Order barring aliens from Britain. Criticised by contemporaries and historians alike, the 1919 Aliens Act, where it is considered at all, is seen as yet one more step along the inevitable path of increased immigration control across the twentieth century. Indeed alongside more stringent immigration and deportation measures the legislation, building on existing local and port public health inspection, introduced a requirement for all aliens to be medically inspected before landing. This significantly expanded the duties of specific state agencies and necessitated the creation of a new level of physical infrastructure and administrative machinery. This paper, through closely examining the workings and limitations of alien medical inspection in two of England’s major ports – Liverpool and London. – sheds light on the everyday working of the Act. In doing so it reflects on the ambitions, actions and limitations of the state and so argues that standard histories of immigration and public health can potentially be disrupted through unpicking the micro-practices of statecraft. Overall it suggests the importance of developing nuanced understandings of the gaps and failures arising from the translation of legislation into practice.