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A Brief History of Migration to the UK, Part 1

A Brief History of Migration to the UK, Part 1

With the upcoming general election and the news about the capsized migrant ship on its way to Italy, learning about international migration is more important than ever. For years now, people have been saying Britain is “overrun” by immigrants and that immigrants are “stealing our jobs”. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing this, but it’s not actually true, despite what the politicians tell you.


Britain’s ethnic minority population is currently running at about 10%. The US’ ethnic minority population is still under 25%, so we’ve still got a very long way to go. It’s also lower than other European countries, for instance France. Ethnic minorities often concentrate in particular areas (for example, there’s a big Pakistani Muslim population in Bradford), but of course London is where most ethnic minorities have significant communities. Walk down a street and you’ll see hundreds of different types of restaurants, food shops, and different religious buildings. Hopefully that puts your mind at rest about being “overrun” by immigrants, because there’s not very many, and they are mostly concentrated in London. You won’t find very many at all in rural areas, so it’s not like every corner of the country is “swamped” with immigrants. Let’s have brief look at the history of migration to the UK, so we can understand the various different peoples.


When Britain had an Empire, there was a lot of trade going on, and British people would have had contact with loads of different people from around the world. This is because trading meant a lot of ships would have to come to Britain from different parts of the Empire, and some of these sailors decided to settle permanently in the UK. Of course, they faced discrimination, but they showed others that it was possible to live in Britain.


When the Commonwealth era ended after World War 2, the government passed the 1948 British Nationality Act. This didn’t say anything new, but it confirmed that any citizen of the Commonwealth had the same rights as British people. The government did this, because they expected many countries to declare their independence. This would give people a choice between British citizenship, and citizenship to their own country. A combination of factors (mostly economic ones) led to an increase in migrants in the 1950s, but having this confirmation was an important reason for them to come to Britain.


Although most of the migrants were English-speaking Christians from the Caribbean who respected British culture and tried to fit in, the inflow frightened many of those in government and the public, so another law was passed. This was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the first of its kind. It placed restrictions on Commonwealth immigration, whereas before relatively free movement had been allowed. But, there was a provision that said that the families of already settled workers could also migrate to Britain, so they did just that. This helped to build communities, as family networks began to develop and there was a greater emphasis on making a home in Britain.


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