Skip to Main Content

Migration to the UK: an introduction



The 1905 Aliens Act was a significant piece of legislation specifically aimed at restricting immigration into Britain.  It followed migration in particular resulting from pogroms against Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. A distinction between "British subjects" and "aliens" now had consequences for entry and involved use of the language of 'invasion' which has current echoes in the UK of 2023.  (Refugee History, 2023, Period One: 1905-1960s; United Kingdom, 1905; PA Media, 2023).  It was followed by the more severe British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act of 1914 and the post-war Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act of 1919. (Refugee History, 2023, Period One: 1905-1960s; United Kingdom, 1914; United Kingdom, 1919). Holmes (1988) looks at immigration legislation and society in the UK between 1871 and 1971, and Bashford and McAdam (2014) draw on how the otherwise restrictive 1905 legislation also introduced the concept of asylum.

The Aliens Act 1919 was the legislation which governed the entry of refugees from Nazism in the 1930s. Legislation was further tightened in the early 1930s, further restricting the right to work, and again in 1938, when aliens coming to Britain were required to obtain a visa in their country of departure as well as fulfilling the criteria of the 1919 Act. (Refugee History, 2023,Period One: 1905-1960s, Aliens Act of 1919)

Two post-WWII landmarks in UK nationality and citizenship matters were in 1948 and 1971. The first welcomed British subjects from Commonwealth countries, particularly to help meet drastic labour shortages in key areas such as the new National Health Service. The 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants' Acts were in part a reaction to public hostility and fear over immigration from certain countries and introduced limits and application requirements.  The 1971 Act changed regulations, and partly helped to cause the later documentation problems for the offspring of the Windrush generation of citizens from 1948 and after.

  • The British Nationality Act 1948 made citizens of Commonwealth countries citizens of the UK and Colonies
  • Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 and 1968 conversely limited the immigration of Commonwealth passport holders and introduced a work voucher application requirement 
  • The Immigration Act 1971 changed the law to grant only temporary residence to most new arrivals, but still allowed people who had arrived before 1973 to remain in the UK indefinitely.  (Full Fact, 2018)  The onus was however now on those who had come to Britain to prove their right to stay.  This returned with serious consequences for the Windrush generation cases brought to light in 2018 
  • British Nationality Act 1981.  This looked at British Citizenship classifications and removed the automatic right of children born in the UK to be considered British Citizens, unless at least one parent was a Citizen or settled. 
  • There were further related Acts in 1983 and from 2002 to 2009

In 1947 the Polish Resettlement Act (United Kingdom, 1947) acknowledged and took responsibility for the "Polish forces and refugees abroad" (Blaszczyk, 2017) who would not be able to return to Poland following the end of WWII.  The Act "aimed to resettle political refugees in the UK, at a time when it was on the verge of an era of considerable population increase based largely on immigration." (Blaszczyk, 2017).   Both Polish, other European, and people from Commonwealth or former Empire countries had fought for Britain and the Allied Forces during WWII.  The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (the Iron Curtain and the Cold War) made return impossible for many of those from Poland and other countries now in the Soviet Bloc.  

The National Archives (2022) covers records searching relating to immigration to Britain for specific groups and how they have been affected by legislation over the centuries.

Free movement of people in the European Union and EU accession of new countries (particularly the 'A8' countries) in 2004, has made a difference to the migration landscape and population make-up and diversity of the UK.  The Labour government's decision to allow full movement immediately was linked to reactions against those migrants and the policy of free movement  (Consterdine, 2016) .  The necessity and benefits of migration from EU27 countries, as from Commonwealth and other countries, have often been understated, and perceived pressures overplayed on the basis of little evidence.  The Migration Observatory (2018) has a more balanced review of the effects of migration. 

At the same time, it should be noted that 'free movement' - or reciprocal rights for all EU citizens - is a pillar of the EU and extended as much to any UK citizens wishing to live, work and settle in other member states whilst the UK was part of the EU (UK in a changing Europe, 2019).  Leaving the European Union and the Single Market removed those rights from British Citizens (Oluwole, 2018). 

The UK and a Hostile Environment

The stated aim of UK governments after 2010 was reducing net migration to the tens of thousands.  The Home Secretary till 2016, pursued multiple measures, with Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016, which had far-reaching effects in the years to come (Bulman, 2019; Liberty, 2020) .  The initial declaration of a "hostile environment for illegal migrants" was outlined in a Daily Telegraph interview with the then Home Secretary (Kirkup and Winnett, 2012).  In the wake of the UK's departure from the EU, new immigration rules were introduced in a Bill in 2019 and subsequent acts involved more restrictive legislation (see next page in this guide).


Bashford, A. and McAdam, J. (2014) 'The Right to Asylum: Britain's 1905 Aliens Act and the Evolution of Refugee Law,' Law and History Review. Cambridge University Press, 32(2), pp. 309–350. doi:

Blaszczyk, A. (2017) 'The resettlement of Polish refugees after the second world war', Forced Migration Review, 54.  Available at: (Accessed 08 July 2020)

Bulman, M. (2019) 'David Cameron: the prime mover behind Britain's hostile environment, who escaped the blame', The Independent, 9 June. Available at: (Accessed 10 June 2019) 

Consterdine, E. (2016) 'The huge political costs of Blair's decision to allow Eastern European migrants unfettered access to Britain'. The Conversation, 16 November. Available at: (Accessed 7 June 2019). 

Full Fact (2018) How immigration law changed for Commonwealth citizens.  Available at: (Accessed 7 June 2019) 

Holmes, C. (1988) John Bull's Island: immigration and British society, 1871-1971. London: Routledge. doi:

Kirkup, J. and Winnett, R (2012) 'Theresa May interview: "We're going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception". Daily Telegraph, 12 May. Available at: (Accessed 7 June 2019)

Liberty (2020) Hostile Environment.  Available at: (Accessed 29 June 2020)

Migration Observatory (2018) The labour market effects of immigration.  Available at: (Accessed 12 June 2019)

National Archives (2022) How to look for records of... Immigration and immigrants. Available at: (Accessed 16 December 2022)

Oluwole, F. (2018) Stopping freedom of movement cuts both ways. Available at: (Accessed 10 June 2019)

PA Media (2023) 'Suella Braverman tells Holocaust survivor she will not apologise for ‘invasion’ rhetoric', Guardian, 14 January.  Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2023)

Refugee History (2023) Refugee History.  Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2023)

The UK in a Changing Europe (2019)  What does freedom of movement in the EU mean? Available at: (Accessed 10 June 2019)

United Kingdom (1905) Aliens Act: An act to amend the law with regard to aliens. Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2023)

United Kingdom (1914) Aliens Restriction Act. Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2023)

United Kingdom (1919) Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act. Available at:

United Kingdom (1947) Polish Resettlement Act 1947.  Available at: (Accessed 08 July 2020)

United Kingdom (1948) British Nationality Act 1948. Available at: (Accessed 10 June 2019)

United Kingdom (1962) Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Available at: (Accessed 26 June 2020)

United Kingdom (1968) Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968. Available at: (Accessed 26 June 2020)

United Kingdom (1971) Immigration Act 1971. Available at: (Accessed 10 June 2019)

United Kingdom (1981) British Nationality Act 1981.  Available at: (Accessed 30 June 2020)

Accessibility statement