Migration & Citizenship

Migration & Citizenship

The 20th century saw migration - both immigration and emigration - become more important to Britain than ever before. More people moved around the globe and as they did so, so too did the State's attempt to control who came in, monitor who went out and decide who was entitled to the rights due to a British citizen.

London was at the heart of all debates about migration and citizenship in the 20th century. The century began with the Aliens Act of 1905, Britain's first attempt to define some groups of immigrants as'undesirable'. The Act sprang from a perceived crisis in London's East End, where overcrowding seemed to have got dramatically worse with the arrival of thousands of Russian and Polish Jews. The century ended with London at the centre of debates about asylum seekers, a category of migrant that the 1905 Act had specifically said 'shall not be refused (leave to land) on the grounds merely of want of means'.

Despite attempts to control the flow of people to and from the capital, the changes that migration wrought in the face and culture of Londoners over the century was profound. In the 1901 census 95.5% of Londoners were what would later be classed as 'White British' (66% were born in London, 26% born elsewhere in England or Wales, 1.3% in Scotland and 1.4% in Ireland). Of the remaining 4.5%, 0.9% were born in British Empire countries, and 3.6 % born in 'foreign countries'). These foreign countries were largely European, for centuries the main source of migrants to London. The figures in 1901 reflected the great movement of Jewish refugees across the continent that had begun thirty years earlier. The three largest groups of foreign born Londoners in 1901 were 39,117 Russians, 27,427 Germans and 15,429 Polish Russians.

One hundred years later, the Londoners of 2001 were a very different lot. The proportion of 'White British' Londoners had gone down to 72%. The three largest groups of Londoners with ethnic backgrounds other than white British were Indian (6%), Black African (5.2%) and Black Caribbean (4.7%). Because the figures were based on Greater London, rather than inner London these percentages represented larger numbers of people: the 6% of Indian Londoners represented 436,993 people. London by 2001 was unquestionably the most diverse city in Britain, proud of its multiculturalism and beginning to rely heavily on the economic advantage that such a population mix gave the capital.

The two driving factors in London's 20th century migration were: the greater mobility that air transport brought, and the aftermath of the British Empire. On both counts, London was bound to be at the centre of change. London, more than any other British city, had transport routes leading to it from all over the Empire. Emigration as well as immigration flowed naturally through the capital. In the first half of the 20th century about 50,000 people a year, left Britain to settle in Dominion countries, particularly Canada and Australia, and were encouraged to do so by government assisted passages or child emigration schemes. Until the 1980s Britain was a country of net emigration, with more people leaving than arriving.

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