From Open Borders to Brexit
The lecture will look at the current debates on migration from a historical perspective. Contrary to the popular perception of border controls as natural, restrictive immigration policies are in fact a relatively recent phenomenon in world history. The open borders regime and liberal asylum laws of the nineteenth century were gradually eroded in Britain by a series of increasingly restrictive measures, starting with the Aliens Restriction Act of 1905 which limited immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. In the first half of the twentieth century not only Jews but also Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants in Britain were faced with religiously- motivated hostility and widespread discrimination in employment and housing. It was only with the arrival of “non-white” immigrants from former British colonies in Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean that xenophobic prejudice towards less visible migrant groups started to disappear in the 1960s. We will then discuss how the anti-immigrant discourse and more openly racist rhetoric associated with the Brexit referendum campaign can be located within the broader context of migration history in twentieth-century Britain and beyond.