A piece on race and the Windrush immigration in which I argue that the narrative that Windrush British citizens were invited to build Britain is not only wrong, but fits a xenophobic narrative. They were not guests, but citizens exercising freedom of movement.

(Content warning: this piece contains distressing racial and xenophobic slurs to illustrate xenophobia at work in the British media — obviously, these illustrations are not endorsements.)

Recent outrage about the government’s appalling treatment of Windrush generation British citizens is welcome, and will hopefully rectify an unjust and tragic situation. But it fits neatly, all too conveniently, into the “good immigrant” narrative.

This narrative reinforces the idea that immigrants are only entitled to minimally decent treatment if they are morally impeccable, net tax contributors for many years, working for such places as the House of Commons or the NHS, and if they don’t presume to be equal to their hosts.

The Windrush generation are now being favourably compared to EU immigrants, who are seen as criminals and coming in too large numbers.


This is surprising.

How can we explain the racial dynamics behind this discourse? The explanation lies partly in the racialisation of Eastern European citizens in the UK, which is not a new phenomenon, and also in a xenophobic attitude that sees immigrants as OK as long as they behave like guests. Windrush British citizens fit this bill, but EU citizens (especially from Eastern Europe) do not.

Pitting Windrush against EU migration

There are several examples in the media where the Windrush debacle is linked to EU migration. For example, Peter Oborne (Daily Mail) links the treatment of Windrush British citizens with immigration control on EU citizens: “Finally, Brexit will allow this country to regain control of our borders and immigration policy after years of Brussels making it impossible to control the number of migrants coming to Britain from Europe.”

Michael Gove made similar remarks about how Brexit now enabled the UK to have the most liberal attitude to immigration, as if there is only a small amount of decency that UK citizens can have towards immigrants. Now they can finally treat EU citizens worse, with taking some of their rights away, they can find it in their hearts to be minimally decent to Windrush-generation citizens.

This tweet by George Galloway puts it more crassly:


As does this one by the Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce (note again how it pities the virtuous Windrush generation against purported “Romanian rapists”.)


These two tweets exemplify two ways in which Romanians have been racialised in the UK: talk of mass migration ("whole of Romania") and linking them to crime (“rapists”).

Race may lack a biological foundation, but it is a social concept, and for many people, a social reality. Sally Haslanger defines racialisation as the process whereby a group of people is singled out by virtue of its geographical links and socially positioning its members either as subordinate or as privileged along some dimensions (economic, political, legal, social, etc.). That race is a social construct, rather than a biological reality, is exemplified in how people are categorized in various countries. In Brazil, people who self-identify as white would frequently be identified as black or mixed race in the US, for example.

Racialisation happens mostly with people from former European colonies, but also sometimes with people who are now seen as white, such as Jews, Irish (historically, in the US), and, as we will see, Eastern European EU citizens in the UK. In an article from 2012, but very topical for today, the sociologists Jon Fox, Laura Moroşanu, and Eszter Szilassy discuss how Eastern Europeans have been racialised in the UK, by which they mean that they have been degraded as being somehow less white, and racially different.

This racialisation occurred both through official policies and in the tabloid media. For example, both Romania and Bulgaria were subject to a 7 year control on their rights to work, from 2007 when they joined to 2014, when the job market became opened finally, i.e. they did not need work permits anymore. Moroşanu and colleagues show two ways in which the tabloid media vilified EU immigrants:

The numbers game, which emphasizes the scope and scale of EU net migration “The tabloids took this as license for employing their favourite liquid metaphors of floods, deluges, inundations, swamps, and streams, not to mention hordes and invasions, to describe the new arrivals from East Europe.” See a representative example below:

Daily Mail, July 2013.

Linking EU immigration to crime: “Reporting on migrants and minorities from other contexts has been shown to be disproportionately concerned with crime... A ‘crime’ frame posits a tight, even inherent link between migrant and criminal.” See a representative example below:

Daily Mail, June 2016.

Official policies further amplify and support this racialisation. The large majority of EU citizens who are detained in the UK are Eastern European, the ones who are from older EU countries (France, Belgium etc.) tend to be people of colour, which again underscores the racialisation that underlies these policies. As Luke de Noronha writes:

“The number of EU citizens detained increased five-fold between 2010 and 2015. In 2015, 11.4% of those detained were EU citizens (3,699 detainees). This increased again in 2017, with 5,297 European nationals detained–over 19% of the total. This spike followed the Brexit vote, even though the law hadn’t changed. Importantly, 87% of the Europeans detained in 2017 were from the 10 countries that have joined the EU since 2004, with over two thirds of these coming from Poland and Romania.”

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Luke de Noronha thinks that EU immigrants from older EU countries will be fine, because they are not racialised to this extent, and dismisses the anxiety of French, Belgian, German etc. citizens as “white noise”.

However, precisely because race is a social construct, I don’t think we can assume that people will be fine after freedom of movement is taken away, especially as the most recent discourse in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun, does not distinguish between different kinds of EU citizens anymore, but talks about all of them as “EU killers”, “EU migrants”, etc. See below a misleading picture (with refugees, not EU citizens exercising freedom of movement) in the Daily Mail in an article published when the transitional deal was discussed, with the DM arguing that post-Brexit transitional freedom of movement would let in floods of EU migrants.

Daily Mail article against the transitional arrangement.

The colonialist narrative of Windrush-generation citizens who were “invited to rebuild Britain.”

The Windrush debate appeals to nostalgic notions of Jamaican and other Commonwealth citizens who were “invited” to rebuild Britain after World War II. The idea is that they came as guests to a benevolent host, and so the UK now needs to treat them with respect.

This narrative is wrong. It cannot be emphasized enough: Windrush generation citizens were not immigrants. They were British subjects exercising freedom of movement, thanks to the British Nationality Act 1948. As a result of this act, all British subjects, whether they lived in the UK or a colony, had CUKC citizenship, Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC status) .

HMT Empire Windrush

It was all good and well as long as UK citizens could move to the countries they colonized, but when darker citizens started moving into the UK, moral panic gripped the nation. A discourse quite similar to the current discussion on mass migration from Eastern Europe unfolded, culminating in Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, who famously said:

“It almost passes belief that at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week — and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence... We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population.” (Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, 1968)

That speech was in 1968. Rules of residence ended, and freedom of movement ended. People who came as citizens have become migrants, their landing cards have now been destroyed.

In 1981 with the British Nationality Act, CUKC was replaced: now people became either a British citizen, British Dependent Territories citizen or British Overseas Citizen. The similarities between Brexit and this restriction of free movement across the Commonwealth are striking, the main difference is that for the Commonwealth case, the UK could restrict free movement as it saw fit. For Brexit, ending freedom of movement means a costly break with the single market. The result is similar, though, in that people who came as citizens became immigrants.

The narrative of a state-sanctioned programme of migration from the Caribbean is comfortable, because it obscures this free movement in favour of a story of UK superiority. In this story, the benevolent and superior host brings in wanted guests, who work hard for their host to rebuild the country. But in reality, UK residents were not that happy with the influx of British citizens of colour, and these citizens faced discrimination, for instance, they were barred from holding certain jobs (black bus drivers in Bristol were not allowed). We must resist this narrative, which obscures the freedom of movement rights and same citizenship status Jamaicans and other Commonwealth citizens enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Conclusion: immigrants tolerated as long as they know their place, and don’t come in large numbers.

I have argued earlier that the xenophobia that underlies Brexit is not a hatred of immigrants per se. Rather, it is the expression of power relations whereby immigrants are tolerated in so far as they can be milked for their net tax and other contributions, and don’t presume come on equal terms. It is interesting in that respect to consider this excerpt from a letter, which was received by a black British MP:

Threatening letter sent to David Lammy MP

Although this MP is a British citizen, the idea is clear that he will forever be an immigrant in the eyes of the letter-writer: he should be grateful, and should not criticize his host country. The broader thought is this: as long as the immigrant is there to serve the UK citizen, they are welcome. But they should not be expected to be treated as equal. Freedom of movement in the Commonwealth, and now in the EU, equalizes people born in the UK and those born outside.

This pattern of xenophobia can explain why Windrush British citizens are now worthy of sympathy even for the Daily Mail. Not because racism has disappeared, or has shifted onto white people, but because the Windrush citizens fit the xenophobic narrative. Their free movement is now underplayed in the media in favour of a false narrative of the UK government inviting them to help rebuild the country.

This underplays the rights they had (and lost as a result of nationality reforms), and creates a dichotomy between hosts and guests, which due to the British nationality act in 1948 did not exist.

At present Windrush British citizens are elderly people who are settled in the UK, and there won’t be any new arrivals from their demographic unless they, or their British spouse, can pass the most stringent requirements. Jamaicans can’t come to the UK anymore by exercising free movement, because free movement has ended for them. So they can be seen as harmless. They don’t fall into the numbers game or the criminality narrative. By contrast, EU citizens can still come to the UK using freedom of movement. Unless the transitional arrangement is scuppered, this will still happen until 2020.

Afterwards, EU citizens will just become another category of immigrants, and if the CJEU sunset clause ends 8 years after*, they will have no recourse to an external court. We know from experience empathy with people who are “the other” is limited. We also know it is capricious; after all, Windrush citizens have been treated appallingly for years but nothing happened.🔷

*The sunset clause is not set in stone, but provisionally agreed as a compromise — hopefully the EU will reconsider this now in the light of the Windrush.

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(This piece was first published on Medium.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Bradley Greeff.)