A Voice from the Aliens

The development of migration control is quite a recent thing, with the first controls on immigration not coming into existence until 1905 with the Aliens Act. The introduction of this piece of legislation was due, in part, to a concerted campaign by sections of the trade union movement and socialist groups.

Jewish people suffering persecution in Tsarist Russia and Eastern Europe had been forced to flee in increasing numbers over the previous decade and anti-Semites had responded by agitating for restriction on entry to the UK. This was the era of mass migration into south Wales. During the second half of the 19th century 126,529 people moved into Glamorgan and Monmouthshire mostly from the south west of England, but there were many new Jewish communities too.

Initially the Trades Union movement was part of the racist agitation for control. In 1892 more than 40 labour movement bodies, including Trades councils in London, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, adopted resolutions calling for restrictions on immigration, especially by East European Jews. Manchester Trades Council ‘s statement was typical:

“It is time that workers of this country . . . rose up and protested with firmness against the continuation of this curse [of Jewish immigration]”.

However a significant number of working class activists, committed to defend the freedom of movement, held a rally on 21st August 1894 in Whitechapel, London passing a resolution which stated:

“the vast amount of poverty and misery which exists is in no way due to the influx of foreign workmen, but is the result of the private ownership of the means of production”

This was very much against the run of play however and at  the Trade Union Congress in Cardiff  in 1895, along with demanding the nationalisation of land, mines and railways, a resolution was also passed against immigrants. In response to this, ten, mostly Jewish, trade unions published a pamphlet entitled “A Voice from the Aliens“, it was launched in August 1895 at meetings in London and Leeds with speakers including Eleanor Marx and Peter Kropotkin. The leaflet reminds ‘native’ workers of their:

“duty to combine against a common enemy, [rather] than fight against us, whose interests are identical with yours”.

Sadly it did not have the desired effect on the movement and in 1896 the trade union leadership sent a delegation to the Home Secretary supporting anti-immigrant legislation, sponsored by the Tory Lord Salisbury.

The resistance to the concept of immigration controls was growing however, and by 1902 the Aliens Defence League had been formed in Brick Lane to oppose the act. In the September of that year, the Federated Tailors Union of London held a rally in Wonderland hall, which attracted over 3000 people, with many more filling the streets outside. In the end the battle was lost and the first controls were enacted in 1905, denying entry  to any:

“undesirable immigrant [who] cannot show that he has in his possession or is in a position to obtain the means of decently supporting himself”

Though opposition to the act continued, complimented by weekly criticism and cataloguing on the human impact of the law by the Jewish Chronicle, which in 1907 described the act as:

“saturated with class prejudice from almost the first clause to the last and divorced from every true democratic instinct. It has proved itself arbitrary, retrograde, tyrannical and cruel”

The 1905 Act was followed up with further acts in 1914 and 1919, which, among other things, gave the state the power to deport people who had settled in the UK and made it a criminal offence for ‘an alien’ to “promote industrial unrest”. Between 1914 and 1918 many people who had legally gained asylum were branded as “enemy aliens” and 29,000, including many East European Jews, were interned in special camps.

As much as the campaigning for immigration restrictions by the Trade Union Congress is a sad chapter in the history of the working class movement, this first leaflet against migration controls (Reprint available on .pdf from No One Is Illegal) and the movement it came out of, stands as an inspiration to everyone who demands freedom of movement and equality for all!

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