Skip to main content Skip to navigation

(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire – A Review

(B)ordering Britain: Law, Race, and Empire

Rafael Shimabukuro

Nadine El-Enany’s book is a radical, much-needed reframing of the debate on immigration in Britain. Whereas public discourse on both sides of the issue treats immigration as a privilege benevolently granted to deserving foreigners, El-Enany uncovers the colonial roots of the British immigration system and its continuing dispossessing effects on Empire’s victims.

El-Enany’s main argument is straight-forward, powerful, and perhaps uncomfortable for those still reaping the rewards of Empire. British wealth is the result of centuries of colonial theft. Immigration controls deny racialised others access to British wealth. Therefore, immigration controls perpetuate colonial violence, denying those victimised by the British Empire access to the very same resources and opportunities which were stolen from their ancestors. Although El-Enany’s use of the word ‘violence’ might initially seem hyperbolic, the exclusion of racialised others leads to continued poverty, persecution, and a lack of access to public services such as healthcare. In short, it leads to the violence of undignified lives and early deaths. Moreover, contemporary British citizenship law values ancestral ties to the British Isles over all else, codifying Britishness as whiteness and delegitimising alternative claims to Britishness. In this manner, immigration law is both about delineating the underserving outsiders (bordering) and the undeserving insiders (ordering).

After laying down its main argument in Chapter 1, the book embarks on a detailed examination of the hundred-year-old history of British immigration controls. Chapter 2 charts the origins of immigration law as a response to Jewish refugees at the beginning of the 20th century. In Chapter 3 the reader learns how, when the myth of imperial unity needed reinforcement post-1945, immigration law unwillingly expanded access to those living under the Empire. Then, when Empire fell in the 1960s and 1970s, immigration law shut off access, cordoning off Britain’s stolen riches.

In Chapter 4 El-Enany argues the legal architecture of asylum, while providing relief for a lucky few, excludes most, especially those suffering from the poverty brought about by British imperialism. Moreover, framing the topic in terms of asylum often obscures deeper issues of justice and reparations. In Chapter 5 attention is redirected to the European Union, usually imagined as a bastion of human rights by the ‘progressive’ side of the Brexit debate. Not only did Britain retain the power to exclude refugees under EU rules, but the European project itself is exclusionary. The EU is a Fortress Europe which reserves for Europeans the wealth and opportunity acquired by global empires.

Woven throughout the book is an important critique of the liberal politics of recognition. Given the British immigration system is an instrument of imperialism, attempting to achieve recognition by that system falls short of fully emancipatory politics. To give an example, it is certainly important for short-term material victories to highlight the legal status of the Windrush generation. However, fetishising legality reproduces the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving on which imperialism is based. All are deserving of rights, regardless of whether their past mistakes have led to criminal records or if they arrived after Britain sealed off its stolen wealth. By basing the defence of the Windrush generation on their legality, one is implicitly accepting the undeserving status of those who fail to reach the British state’s colonial standards. Here El-Enany’s arguments are most important. Those who fight for migrant rights must be aware of the limits of the politics of recognition, lest they end up reproducing the systems they aim to overthrow.

Ultimately, the book is a much-needed contribution to the debate on immigration. Although some interesting aspects are perhaps underdeveloped, such as the view of illegal(ised) immigration as anti-colonial resistance or the role of non-Commonwealth, non-European migrants, El-Enany’s arguments are undoubtedly powerful. Her familiarity with the subject is evident throughout, and the book’s flow and organisation make it easily readable, if not for the many examples of the inhumanity of the British immigration system. The book might not convert all those who believe the British Empire was an altruistic project, but the simple idea at its core radically reframes how immigration ought to be viewed, and, more importantly, how the fight for a truly post-colonial society ought to look like.

Rafeal Shimabukuru is an MPhil student in International Relations at Jesus College Oxford