Menu Close

How refugees in Britain went from living in old bunkers and stately homes to being detained in cells

Ugandan Asian family at Tonfanau Camp, April 1973. Jim Arnould, Nova, Author provided (No reuse)

Mass movement of refugees has turned into mass detention in many liberal democracies.

These are strange days to be writing about camps and refugees. As a historian of Britain and a scholar of refugee studies, I have studied how the U.K. handled mass encampments in its recent past, from the First World War to the 1980s.

As I write, the U.S. Department of Justice is preparing to house 200,000 migrants on military bases. These measures accompany the Trump administration’s recent travel ban, denials of asylum to those who cite fears of domestic violence and gangs in their home countries, and detention of asylum-seekers crossing the Mexico border into the U.S. as criminals. At the same time, immigration detention centers in the U.K. have separated scores or possibly hundreds of children from their parents every year.

At this moment, it is worth looking back at how liberal democracies across the world have struggled with the moral dilemmas of holding tens or hundreds of thousands of people under the pretext of helping them. Very few states today can evade the moral problems of encampment – even if they try to do so by stopping refugees at their borders.

Under tremendous political pressure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reversed her policy of welcoming refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to Germany. Merkel agreed to construct refugee camps, instead, for asylum-seekers on the German border. This was proposed despite recent analyses that suggest migration to Europe is actually sharply in decline.

So-called “border crises” are not about mass arrivals, but about how the people arriving at borders are perceived and treated.

Refugee camps in the 20th century

During the 20th century, dozens of camps in Britain housed tens of thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese.

Even when the British government was warned well in advance of their arrival, it often treated refugee influxes as unannounced emergencies. A welter of state actors and voluntary organizations assigned refugees to temporary housing in holiday chalets and concrete bunkers, military bases, prisons and stately homes.

Some camps were tightly controlled by state actors and aid organizations with armed guards and barbed-wire perimeters where refugees waited to be officially “resettled.” Some camps were ignored by locals; others transformed the nature of nearby towns by introducing Britons to new foods and music. Depending on the availability of housing and their own willingness to be resettled, people could be encamped for just a few days, or for decades.

For example, one refugee worker described how Earl’s Court, a massive entertainment center in London, held nearly 100,000 Belgian refugees who had escaped the German invasion of the First World War. They lived with the menagerie of animals left behind in the old ballroom from Earl’s Court’s days as a recreational resort, wandering among the elephants’ legs and kicking the bars of the tigers’ and lions’ cages. The Belgians at Earl’s Court were able to move freely within the camp and around London, though all Belgians had to register with the police and they were not allowed to settle in areas of national defense.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Home Office, the British department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, placed the Ugandan Asian and Vietnamese camps in remote locations partly to discourage refugees of color from settling in cities with large immigrant populations. At Tonfanau, a remote camp for Ugandan Asians in the 1970s in Welsh-speaking North Wales, residents often traveled six hours by train for job interviews in urban centers. According to one reporter, the bleak barracks looked more like a concentration camp than a place of welcome and refuge.

At another Ugandan Asian camp at West Malling, residents had a curfew of 7 p.m. for fear that they might cause disruptions in the town. The gates at many Ugandan Asian and Vietnamese camps were manned by Securicor, now called G4S – a highly lucrative private security company that today staffs numerous immigration detention centers.

There was always a lot of variety in refugees’ freedom of movement, but the 20th century saw a general tendency toward increased detention measures. Belgians in 1914 had much more physical freedom than the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s. Refugees of color were subject to more physical restrictions, and the types of spaces they inhabited, such as military barracks, tended to be more easily policed.

The future of refuge

Today, very few people think of Britain as a land of camps – and it no longer is. Refugee camps have been made obsolete in Britain in two ways. The first is simply by denying refuge to most people who seek it. Since the 1980s, Britain’s increasingly restrictive asylum policies have pushed refugees across the Channel.

Harmondsworth detention center for refugees in west London. REUTERS/Toby Melville TM/MD

Second, refugees who manage to make it to Britain today enter a rapidly expanding network of prison-like immigration detention centers where they are held while their cases await review. Britain’s detention centers have been widely criticized for their lack of oversight and physical and psychological abuses, which have produced numerous incidents in which detainees try to resist and hurt themselves. Some detainees have described their conditions as worse than those of convicted criminals, since prisoners have a time-limited sentence and the right to education.

According to government data from 2017, around 48 percent of detainees are deported or voluntarily returned on leaving detention; just over half are released back into the community, many in traumatized condition. Since immigration laws in Britain currently allow for indefinite detention, these centers are likely to become permanent.

The camps of the 20th century offered a precedent for today’s detention center in restricting and controlling the movement of refugees.

They also provided the physical structures and personnel that could be repurposed for detention centers when the laws of asylum shifted.

Some of the same spaces that housed refugees in the 20th century have been redeployed as immigration detention centers in the 21st century. For example, Harmondsworth, a site used for stateless Ugandan Asians seeking refuge in the 1970s, is in use as an immigration detention center today.

The future of refuge in Britain – and perhaps in other liberal democracies as well – is no longer in a camp, but in a cell.

Britain’s history suggests how the trajectory from camps to cells has unfolded in one liberal democracy, a path other nations should be wary of following.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 127,000 academics and researchers from 4,022 institutions.

Register now