Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Migrant solidarity – no longer a minority sentiment across Britain?


Don Flynn


Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Don Flynn. Don began his engagement with migrant solidarity back in the 1970s as a legal caseworker in a London law centre. He gained experience as a rights campaigner with the Divided Families Campaign and in 1989 became policy education officer with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. He chaired the board of the Brussels-based Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants for over a decade and in 2005 founded the Migrants’ Rights Network. He has published many articles on UK immigration policy and continues to work as a volunteer for the Status Now 4 All Network. This is the seventh post in the Border Criminologies themed series on 'UK Borderscapes’, organised by Dr Karen Latricia Hough and Dr Kahina Le Louvier.

Wolverhapmton Mayor with staff at the city's Refugee and Migrant Centre
Wolverhapmton Mayor with staff at the city's Refugee and Migrant Centre

Civil society movements working in solidarity with migrants and refugees have a continuous history going back to the post-war period.  They have evolved over this time and the form and political content of their activity has been shaped by the broader currents of anti-racism and the mobilisations of local communities around issues of precarity and social justice. In this blog the path is traced from anti-racist solidarity with newly arrived migrants in the 1950s and 60s, legal activism in the 70s, and community activism in the 80s through to the present time.  It argues that it now exists as a robust political current that has demonstrated powerful capacity to challenge immigration policy across such themes as the Windrush scandal, the European refugee crisis, and the current efforts to criminalise asylum-seeking represented by the Illegal Migration Bill.

The epoch of so-called mass migration is commonly seen as starting around 1948 when HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury with 800 passengers who listed their land of origin as one of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Caribbean.

From the onset, the British political establishment was troubled by the prospect of people disparaged as ‘coloured migrants’ being used to aid the country’s recovery from wartime devastation. This negativity has continued to the present day, with disapproval amplified by coverage in the news media and periodic heightening of anti-immigrant campaigns such as the Powellite agitation in the 1960s, and other moments of temporary electoral gains for far-right parties. Today, the effort by the Conservative government to ‘stop the boats’ can be added to this list of anti-immigrant agitation.

Whilst the story of these anti-immigration efforts has been told many times, the account of those who have acted in solidarity with migrants has not received systematic consideration over these years. Yet activism against the restrictive direction of immigration policy has always existed and deserves more consideration.

It is time to look at this history again. In the early days, migrant solidarity was synonymous with anti-racism, and this remained the case as long as a clear majority of Black and Asian residents had come to the UK from abroad. But from the 1970s onwards, the concerns of these communities moved on from the problems of getting work visas and family reunification, and started centring on the experiences of discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and treatment at the hands of the police. Anti-racism activism increasingly centred on the forms of hostility which confronted Black British citizens.  As the immigration legislation enacted in the early 1970s reduced the flow of new arrivals the predicament of those entering from that time onwards ceased to command the attention it had in the earlier period.

Migrant solidarity continues

Now more marginal to the core concerns of Black and Asian residents, migrant rights activism nevertheless continues as a strand of work alert to the experiences of people affected by the policies delivered by the Home Office, both within the borders of the UK and visa officials operating in British consulates abroad. The organisation most clearly identified with this activity was the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) which was established in 1967 to provide support for Asian British passport-holders who were being expelled from the former colonies in East Africa.

The climate of hostility generated by public policy at that time encouraged innovation on the part of JCWI and its supporters, which mainly took the form of legal defence countering the harsh enforcement of immigration policy with human rights arguments. JCWI reached out to community law centres and sympathetic high street solicitor firms with a programme of legal training and best practice in dealing with immigration issues.  In doing so it brought into existence a cadre of activists trained in legal practice and committed to aiding immigrants who were fighting Home Office on issues like the right to family reunification rights and the deportation of people in breach of conditions of stay.

While this was important work, but it yielded little in the way of a political challenge to the central thrust of government policies. During the 1980s the campaigning energy needed to bring about political change in the direction of immigration policy was being provided by migrant defence campaigns which linked the harm done by Home Office policies to the interests of specific, localised communities and ethnic groups. Examples of this included a trenchantly fought campaign to prevent the deportation of a Sri Lankan political activist, Viraj Mendis. Mendis found strong support among the working class community of Hulme, a district of Manchester, which included a two-year long period of sanctuary in a local church. Around the same time in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, a similar campaign was being waged in support of Mohammed Idrish, an activist in the local Bangladeshi community also being threatened with deportation. In west London, Southall Black Sisters added feminist agitation to the campaigning mix, linking the disadvantaged social position of South Asian women to their heightened vulnerability to expulsion for breaching immigration rules.

The 1990s and the reception of refugees

Migrant solidarity work had been strengthened by linking legal activism with the campaigning energy emanating from the bases built in local communities. This was a methodology which found increased effectiveness in the following decade – the 1990s – when the position of people seeking asylum in the UK moved to centre stage.

Government dispersal policies saw refugees being sent across the country, often to towns and cities which had not experienced migration to any great extent, with the expectation that they would find ways to fend for themselves whilst their applications were being processed by the Home Office. Often facing initial hostility from locals, the presence of the newcomers also triggered positive  responses from sections of local working class communities which had long experience of dealing with hardship and marginalisation. Networks of refugee supporters began to emerge which in time were consolidated into structured associations with the capacity to provide services to people in need and also to mediate relationships with local councils, health services and schools and education authorities. The work of the Wolverhampton Refugee Centre, which was named Charity of the Year in 2020, is an example of the dynamic set in process during this time.

Migrant solidarity became more robust by the emergence of these associations and networks of activists. The interests of newly arriving people were increasingly taken into consideration, and more likely to be viewed from a sympathetic standpoint by civil society currents concerned with social justice and community cohesion   As the migration debate moved on from during the first decade of the new millennium, this extended to cover the increased inflow of migrant workers who arrived to fill shortages in the labour market. But the overall climate was polarising, with large numbers of people taking anti-immigrant stances which dominated the commentaries generated by the political and mainstream media.

This antagonism provided the base for the overtly ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration policy proclaimed by the coalition government in 2012. It also fed into support for the vote for Brexit in the referendum on EU membership in 2016. But the by now large constituency of migrant and refugee rights supporters were in a good position to pick apart the consequences of the harsher regime of controls when these became apparent on the revelations of the Windrush generation scandal in 2017 and the following months.

The learning curve has continued to move steeply upwards in more recent times. The harm done to migrants of the Windrush generation and the appreciation of the migrant contribution to the lives of communities which strengthened during the period of the Covid pandemic have weakened the firm conviction felt in earlier times – that is, that migration was a policy mistake made in the post-war period and has remained unwanted since then - to one which is capable of considering the dimension of the social justice which is due to people who have come from abroad. We might be? at the point of discovering that ‘stop the boats’ is not the majority view of people in Britain, and the implementation of immigration policies underpinned by a stronger sense of human rights might have a stronger appeal.       



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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

D. Flynn. (2023) Migrant solidarity – no longer a minority sentiment across Britain?. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/07/migrant-solidarity-no-longer-minority-sentiment-across. Accessed on: 04/12/2023


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