Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Research Notes: Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control



Time to read

5 Minutes

Research Notes is Border Criminologies’ new ‘mini-post’ series on recent publications about border control. In this second instalment, Evan Smith and Marinella Marmo discuss their new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which has just been released. Evan is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of International Studies at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on the British left, anti-racism, immigration control, and youth culture. Evan blogs at Hatful of History and is on Twitter @hatfulofhistory. Marinella is Associate Professor in Criminal Justice at Flinders University Law School. She researches in the areas of migration, border control, and human rights. 

Our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), is the result of a six-year project examining archival records on the UK immigration control system from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The book focuses on the treatment of South Asian women who travelled in significant numbers throughout the 1970s and 1980s to join their husbands and partners who had come to Britain in search of work.

The British government was concerned with the number of women arriving in the 1970s to join their partners, especially those who travelled on fiancée visas for which there was no queue to obtain entry clearance documents. Notwithstanding racialised fears that migrants from these countries were considered to be those most likely to have false documents and seek to enter Britain under false pretences, South Asian women were encouraged to enter the country in order to create heterosexual nuclear family units within migrant communities. Unlike African-Caribbean women employed in the National Health Service, such women were seen to have no economic value through their labour. Their ‘value’ was only as an appendage of the male migrant from the same ethnic background.

Since it was assumed that people from the Indian subcontinent were actively misleading the British authorities in their reasons for coming to the UK, scrutiny shifted to the body, a physical text that could reveal ‘the truth.’ Secondly, according to widespread colonialist racial and sexual prejudices, a South Asian woman was supposedly ‘pure’ and would not engage in sex outside of marriage. Thus her marital status claims (particularly if coming on a fiancée visa) could be ‘verified’ by a physical examination.

Such views led to so-called ‘virginity testing,’ a gynaecological examination of South Asian women attempting to enter the UK that occurred at Heathrow airport and the British High Commissions in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, lasting from 1968 until knowledge of the practice was made public in early 1979 by The Guardian. Using the archival records of the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Prime Minister’s Office, our book is the first to demonstrate the extent of 'virginity testing' within the immigration control system and how much various policy makers knew about the practice.

In March 1979, the Labour government under John Callaghan acknowledged in the House of Commons 34 cases in India. In 2011, we published research, based on the available documents at the time, which showed that the successor government under Margaret Thatcher knew that there were at least 80 cases. As Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control shows, after we found more relevant files in 2012 and 2013, that by 1980, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had uncovered many more instances―between 123 and 143 overall. A revision of the initial figure of 34 cases was never given by the Thatcher government and those in the Home Office and the FCO sought to bury any discussion of the topic after the initial public interest in 1979.

In the aftermath of the practice being made public by The Guardian, there was a wider call for investigation into discriminatory treatment within the British immigration control system and a concern about other physical abuses suffered by incoming migrants. Several days after the ‘virginity tests’ were publicised, the media became aware that immigration officials were also using x-rays to assess the age of teenagers where the age of the applicant was disputed. This medically unnecessary procedure increased teenagers’ exposure to radiation and was discredited by numerous medical professionals at the time. While the government announced that the Chief Medical officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees, would conduct an investigation into medical examinations within the immigration control system, many people felt it was merely an attempt by the Callaghan government (facing an imminent election) to stop an in-depth inquiry into immigration control practices.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) demanded a broader and independent investigation into discrimination within the immigration control system and despite being rebuffed by the Callaghan government, announced that it would use its powers under the Race Relations Act 1976 to formally investigate the system. Under the Thatcher government, the Home Office opposed the CRE’s investigation and challenged the organisation in the High Court, arguing that it could not investigate a government institution. In late 1980, the High Court ruled in favour of the CRE and a four year investigation followed.

The Yellowlees’ investigation, completed by March 1980, exonerated the system of any abusive behaviour that had been previously conducted. The report also recommended the continued use of x-rays for age assessment purposes and downplayed any harm that these x-rays could potentially cause. The Yellowlees report was only made available to MPs in the House of Commons (and a few NGOs) and was never publicly released. (For those interested in this matter, the full version of the report can only be found in the National Archives at Kew and the Runnymede Trust papers at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton.)

Despite the support of the continued use of x-rays, British High Commissions in India started to phase out its use shortly after. By 1982, Yellowlees had changed his position and recommended to Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw that the use of x-rays should be discontinued.

Although the practice of ‘virginity testing’ stopped in 1979, we show in our book that South Asian women were still subjected to physical scrutiny by the immigration control system. One of the most infamous examples of this was the fight that Anwar Ditta had to bring her children from Pakistan to Britain. Beginning the application process in 1977, the authorities did not believe that Ditta’s children were her own and continually rejected testimony to show otherwise. Only when blood tests were performed (paid for by Granada TV) did the Minister for Immigration, Timothy Raison, finally allow Ditta’s children to come to the UK. The book shows that despite the many criticisms levelled at the Thatcher government in the 1980s concerning the treatment of South Asian women, it was the position of the government to maintain its discriminatory and detrimental immigration control practices.

We conclude our book by observing that migrant women face similar treatment today and are still subject to disproportionate scrutiny and physical examination, especially the victims of human trafficking and those seeking asylum. We show that this maltreatment has a long history and hope that there are things we can learn from past abuses to ensure that the same actions aren’t replicated in the present.

See the previous Research Notes mini-post:

Any thoughts about this topic? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Smith E and Marmo M (2014) Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/race-gender-and-the-body (Accessed [date]).

With the support of