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  • Laura Gilbert

Immigration to the UK in the 20th Century

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

The UK is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. According to historical studies, there has always been some level of immigration in the UK – such as during the Roman occupation of Britain, or the Norman Conquest.

History demonstrates that people have always moved country with varying motives, namely for family, study, safety, or work. However, the 20th century saw an unprecedented increase in immigration to the UK. This article serves to explain several factors behind the surge in immigration that the UK experienced in the 20th century.

HMS Empire Windrush, immigration in the 20th century

The First World War: 1914 - 1918

Fighting for Britain in the First World War was a multicultural effort. India, for example, made a huge contribution to Britain’s war effort. Along with other Commonwealth countries, India supplied troops, animals, supplies and a large loan to aid the British government at the outbreak of WWI.

Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in WWI, and more than 74,000 of them lost their lives. Around 800,000 Indian troops migrated to Britain to fight in the war. Thousands of Chinese labour corps also came to Europe for work. Though census data reveals the fact that, before the Second World War, immigration levels were relatively low, and Britain was still an ethnically homogenous nation.

Indian soldiers in WW1

The aftermath of the Second World War: from 1945

The Second World War took place from 1939 to 1945. 1948 marks the year in which mass immigration to Britain began. The arrival of immigrants, an event known as Empire Windrush, carried approximately 1,027 passengers from Jamaica to London on 22nd June 1948. Their countries of residence included Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad, British Guiana, and other Caribbean countries.

Many of the passengers on board were ex-servicemen who had served for Britain during the war. In fact, this formed part of Britain’s post-war plan to recruit labour from the Commonwealth in order to cover employment shortages for state-run services including the NHS and London Transport.

The British National Act (BNA) was also enacted in 1948. The passing of the act meant that all British subjects in the Empire had the right to live in the UK. Furthermore, two citizenship statutes came into effect: Citizens of the UK and the Colonies (CUKCs), which included individuals who were born in a territory under British colonial rule, and Citizens of the Independent Commonwealth Countries (CICCs), including independent countries such as Canada or India, were granted the right to abode in the UK. These acts were largely responsible for the surge in British immigration in the 20th century.

British reaction

From 1948, nearly half a million people left their homes in the Caribbean, also referred to as the West Indies, to live in Britain. They were all British citizens that came to the UK for several reasons, primarily for better employment opportunities. Although the UK had recruited many of these workers due to the country’s labour shortage, not all of the newcomers were welcomed. Unfortunately, Black settlers experienced many difficulties and injustices. The colour of their skin provoked unfriendly reactions to the extent that some struggled to find employment and some landlords even refused to rent to black people. Insulting signs would be placed in houses that said: ‘Rooms to Let: No dogs, no coloureds’.

1950s – 1970s

Around 472,000 Commonwealth Citizens entered Britain from January 1955 to June 1962. Commonwealth citizens were admitted to Britain at a rate of around 75,000 per year in the 1960s, and 72,000 per year in the 1970s. The potential numbers of those eligible to immigrate to the UK caused concern. In 1958, areas in which large numbers of West Indians lived experienced outbreaks of violence against them. Black people were attacked by white people in the streets, particularly in cities such as London and Nottingham. These attacks on British citizens (by other British citizens) included violence towards the Black population in addition to the smashing and burning of their homes.

Briton overseas is ashamed of Nottingham

Such discrimination continued despite their hard work and contribution to British life. Consequently, several acts were passed so as to introduce immigration controls. The Immigration Act of 1971 meant that Commonwealth citizens wishing to relocate to the UK were subject to stricter immigration controls.

On 1st January 1973, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), which would later become the European Union (EU). This alliance enabled freedom of movement within member states of the EU. In a referendum in 1975, a majority of British citizens voted to stay in the EEC, thus continuing freedom of movement.


Despite the British Nationality Act 1981, which sought to tighten citizenship criteria, approximately 54,000 commonwealth citizens entered the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s. The 1987 Carriers Liability Act sought to place greater responsibility on those bringing passengers to the UK by verifying that their documentation was in order, with heavy fines for those without the right documentation.

Despite the new sanctions, clandestine illegal entrants continued to increase. The 1990s also saw a sharp rise in asylum seekers, with applications rising from just 1,563 in 1979 to 44,840 in 1991. This was partly due to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as well as instability in other countries. The opening of the Channel Tunnel, connecting France and England, created another means by which to attempt to enter the UK undetected.

The Channel Tunnel

The reaction to this increased migration and asylum-seeking in the UK was among the most negative within the EU. Britain’s right-wing media was uniquely aggressive in its campaigns against refugees and migrants. Stark changes happened in the 1990s as immigration overtook natural population growth in England and Wales in 1994 – 1995. However, it’s essential to note that the majority of immigration in the 1990s mainly came from outside the European Union. Refugees granted asylum also constituted a small proportion with just over 10,000 in 1999.


It is evident that the surge in immigration to the UK during the 20th century is largely based on the country’s Commonwealth history, and that immigration was in many cases initially actively encouraged by the British government. Britain’s joining of the European Union further encouraged free movement within member states. Though parliamentary acts were enforced to control immigration, the UK remains one of countries with the most immigrants in the world. According to United Nations data, in 2019 the UK came in fifth place with 8.4 million immigrants, behind the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Public opinion remains divided as to whether the government needs to make more effort to control immigration levels, or whether immigration is something to be celebrated and encouraged.

For more information, see our dedicated section on British History and Revisionism.

Edited by Cathi Westall

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