Book review: (B)ordering Britain


photo of front cover of Bordering Britain book

Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain, reviews Nadine El-Enany’s (B)ordering Britain: Race, Law and Empire (Manchester University Press).

Nadine El-Enany’s stirring, important and compelling book argues that “British immigration laws are acts of colonial seizure and violence, obstructing the vast majority of racialised people from accessing the spoils of empire.”

El-Enany’s work goes beyond the oft-argued but not oft-accepted position that immigration control is implemented in a racist way, or that the policies of control such as detention and forced removal are racist. Instead, she sets out how immigration law itself is a means for the continuing assertion of British colonial power.

This is because:

Britain’s borders, articulated and policed via immigration laws, maintain the global racial order established by colonialism, whereby colonised peoples are dispossessed of land and resources.

This has enormous implications for stoking racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric and behaviour: in the media, in laws and policies, and in the general public. El-Enany shows how “Britain’s self-construction as an enclosed space, within which resources and wealth obtained via colonial conquest belong to Britons, conceived in large part as white” leads to immigration law targetting the racialised poor, and the ‘stealing our jobs, houses’ narrative that both fuels and is a result of racist immigration policy.

Immigration and nationality laws as racial exclusion

The book provides a review of the modern history of immigration and nationality laws that were a process of racial exclusion, and reinforced the premise that Britishness = whiteness. In this chapter, we also see early forerunners for the Hostile Environment and No Recourse to Public Funds policies, with debates over migrants’ access to pensions, poor relief and health insurance in the first decades of the twentieth century feeling distinctly familiar.

The 1948 British Nationality Act was an attempt to sustain colonial relationship of domination, but crucially the intended beneficiaries were white settlers. Legislators didn’t anticipate racialised colonial/Commonwealth citizens would travel to live in Britain, but between 1948 and 1962 500,000 did. The 1971 Immigration Act made whiteness intrinsic to British identity, through patriality: those exempt from immigration control were mostly people born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain, the vast majority of whom were white. The 1981 Act draw a geographical boundary around Great Britain:

“racialised colony and Commonwealth citizens were told that their present or historical connections to the British Empire neither entitled them to Britishness as an identity nor to access Britain as a place…

… Immigration law, in this way, is the modality through which Britain transitioned from being a colonial power in the traditional overseas extractive sense, to a space of domestic colonialism masquerading as a post-colonial nation.”

The limitations of the recognition regime

El-Enany then goes on to consider the development and limitations of legal categories such as refugee and asylum-seeker.

In particular, the book critiques ‘recognition’ based arguments made in migrant rights activism, as they rely on the pre-eminence of the principle of state sovereignty (which the courts are incapable of questioning). The granting of immigration status or citizenship will always be an act of colonial bestowing. El-Enany argues that recognition regimes – particularly refugee law – allows Britain to conceal its colonial history (and present) beneath a veneer of humanitarianism.

The role of law in effacing this history and the entanglement with the present is most effectively, in my view, demonstrated in El-Enany’s insightful analysis of the case of N v. Secretary of State for the Home Department.

In this case, N, was receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS in Britain but the Home Office were attempting to remove her to Uganda, where she would not have access to the medication she needed to stay alive.

I remember being (and remain) appalled when reading the 2005 court judgment that – despite acknowledging that without the drugs and facilities she was receiving in the UK, N would experience acute physical and medical suffering and an early death – ruled that wasn’t enough to oblige the UK to grant her the right to stay.

The blind spot in my understanding of the legal case has been rectified by El-Enany’s colonial framing of it. N was from Uganda – a former British colony. The healthcare that she was receiving in Britain was possible because of Britain’s extraction of resources from its colonies. In the judgment, and many judgments like it, the wealth disparity between Uganda and Britain is seen as natural occurrence, and certainly not something that immigration law should redress.

A necessary and urgent challenge

(B)ordering Britain is such an important intervention, providing critical distance to those of us immersed in the (constantly changing, and usually for the worse) world of immigration law, and in the human stories and politics of migrant rights movements.

The book is certainly a challenge to us, however. El-Enany identifies legal recognition processes as utilising assimilationist logic that delegitimise claims to redistributive and reparation justice.

She acknowledges the necessity of refugee lawyers engaging in the processes, but argues that scholars and activists should stand apart from these recognition processes. This is tricky for me, as in my experience, scholars, lawyers and activists aren’t necessarily discrete categories of people. Those of us engaging in solidarity work with people seeking the right to remain in the UK are responding to people’s individual, urgent needs and have little choice – for now – being complicit in structures and processes that we wish to see abolished.

Nonetheless, it is a necessary and urgent challenge. The postcolonial analysis this book provides must be the constant background to our everyday firefighting, and the inspiration for our movements for transformation.

Listen to Nadine El-Enany discuss her book on the Surviving Society podcast.


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