Brexit Britain’s dismal plan to export its “immigration problem” to Rwanda through the forced deportation of asylum seekers is in some ways redolent of how, more than a century earlier, Kenya Colony dealt with its “native question”. That centred upon how to control the “natives” in a white European colony.
Some of the same buzzwords can be heard again this time around. Morality, betterment, economics, labour, containment, segregation and deterrence. Africans (and migrants of other ethnicities) must be contained in the equivalent of “native” reserves so that states can better control them. Moving them into reserves (aka migrant hostels, barracks, camps or detention centres) is for their own good. They will learn to give up whatever they were doing and labour for the white man (or in Rwanda’s case, industrious black and brown people). They will learn by example to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as if they had never worked hard before. They will be mighty grateful for the opportunities offered – or they damn well ought to be. Saviours, of whatever colour, will save the lazy “natives” from themselves – or in the case of cross-Channel migrants, from people smugglers. Morally, it is the right thing to do. Civilisation will rub off on them. But whether the deported migrants will be treated as citizens or subjects in their new “home” remains unclear.
Writing in The Times in April, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel, chief architect of the UK-Rwanda deportation scheme, said, “We can provide legal, safe, orderly and controlled ways for people to better their lives, flee oppression, persecution or conflict and enjoy new opportunities” (emphasis mine). This ignores the fact that forced deportation is itself oppressive, and a form of trafficking. The “best interests” argument was regularly used by colonial administrators, in Kenya and in other British colonies, to justify forced removals and other oppressive measures against Africans, such as the Maasai removals and the Talai resettlement (discussed below).
Continuities in the colonial treatment of mobile Africans, and the modern-day treatment of refugees and asylum seekers (both African and other non-whites), are plain to see. Scholars Hanna Brankamp and Patricia Daley write of labourers, migrants and refugees, then and now: “Colonial biopolitics dictated that nonwhite bodies only move at the behest of capital, colonial authorities, and certainly never of their own volition”. Discussing both colonial migrant labourers and post-colonial refugees and migrants, and historical trajectories of migration control, their term “racialized subjects in need of spatial fixation” is a useful one. They draw parallels between measures of regulation, control and containment that are still in vogue today.
The role of Brexit
The goal of ending unfettered immigration to Britain lay at the heart of the Brexit vote in 2016, when a slim majority of British people voted to leave the European Union (EU). Those voters, known as Brexiteers, seem to forget that 47.5 million people did not vote to leave. Though this figure includes 13 million people who did not vote at all, those who voted to stay in the EU are called Remainers. The country formally left the EU in January 2020. But Brexiteers are furious that Brexit has not delivered what they expected, or were promised. In particular, they rage at what they see as out-of-control immigration, and the spectre of “hordes” of young men “of fighting age” from Africa and the Middle East arriving on our beaches. The majority are wrongly assumed to be Muslims, who are believed, in the wake of several terrorist attacks by young Muslim men living in Britain, to pose a terror threat. Immigration, especially by cross-Channel dinghy from France, aided by people smugglers, has soared under successive Tory governments; 28,500 migrants crossed the Channel this way in the past year, treble the figure for the previous 12 months. More than 20,000 people have crossed since the start of 2022. Crossings have continued since the Home Office announced its deportation plan, which indicates that it is not a deterrent. Some 1295 people crossed in one day (22 August), a record for 2022 so far. The fact that the migrants are escorted ashore by Border Force officials, housed in hotels, fed and watered, and “paid” £39 a week, all at taxpayers’ expense, only infuriates Brexiteers more.
“Colonial biopolitics dictated that nonwhite bodies only move at the behest of capital, colonial authorities, and certainly never of their own volition”.
Gloating over this fiasco is the divisive figure of Nigel Farage, an éminence grise obsessed with immigration and the EU, who has never managed to get elected to the British parliament, despite seven attempts. He was, nonetheless, the driving force behind Brexit, when leader of the fringe UKIP (UK Independence Party) and Brexit Party. Farage continues to whip up anti-migrant sentiment on right-wing broadcast channels such as GB News, but also in the pages of serious national newspapers. If one person is single-handedly responsible for the anti-migrant rhetoric, it is Farage. Shamefully, the two final candidates who fought to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, parroted Farage in their frantic attempt to appeal to Tory Party members who chose the new PM. As predicted, Truss won. (The British electorate as a whole was not allowed to vote.) At an earlier stage of the contest, all the candidates said they supported the Rwanda deportation plan – despite the fact that several of them are, like Patel and Sunak, the children of immigrants to the UK. (Sunak’s parents were born in Kenya and Tanganyika, Patel’s are from Uganda.)
Fear of a mass invasion by Africans features in much of this rhetoric. Online comments contain hysterical claims that “the whole continent” is headed for Europe. “Most of Africa would prefer to live in Britain”, posted a reader at the Daily Telegraph on 22 June, one example that stands for many. In fact, the top countries of migrants’ origin include non-African countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The deportation plan can be seen as the culmination of the Tories’ hostile environment policy towards immigrants, which was first introduced ten years ago. In 2012, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a strategy aimed at tackling “illegal” immigration by making life so unbearable for certain migrants they would voluntarily choose to leave. May herself used the words “a really hostile environment”. (Ironically, she now criticises the Rwanda deportation policy.) However, the opposition Labour Party first coined the expression in 2007. The then Labour immigration minister Liam Byrne referred to the desirability of creating a “hostile environment” in a consultation document that year, although the policy was not implemented. He has angrily denied May’s claims that Labour invented it.
Migration within colonial Kenya
Switching my focus to Kenya and the deeper historical context of forced migration, many of the internal relocations that took place in colonial Kenya (and the British protectorate that preceded it, before 1920) involved coercing Africans into leaving home to labour for white settlers. They moved seasonally in large numbers. “Squatters had not looked for work; [Lord Delamere] had sent for them, fetching their families and flocks by train”, writes historian John Lonsdale. However, not all displacement was coerced; this denies African and Asian agency, and overlooks all the other reasons why men, and women (often ignored in migration studies), moved as individuals in search of work.
The deportation plan can be seen as the culmination of the Tories’ hostile environment policy towards immigrants, which was first introduced ten years ago.
Norman Leys (a medical doctor and rights activist) reported how many colonial district officers initially refused to comply with demands from settlers and other private employers to use their influence and procure labourers. “Then an agitation began in Nairobi and in London. As a result of that agitation instructions were sent to district officers that, while no compulsion was to be used, ‘moral suasion’ was to be resorted to, chiefs were to be ‘encouraged’ to persuade their people to leave home to work for Europeans.” Then as now, Anglican bishops issued a statement condemning the plan. “We believe that ideally all labour should be voluntary. We recognise that, at present, this is impossible … [But] we are of the opinion that compulsory labour, so long as it is clearly necessary, should be definitely legalised.”
Under colonial vagrancy laws, it even became impossible for Africans who were not in employment to move around the country. The raising of the hut and poll tax also “encouraged” (Leys’ word, he was being ironic) Africans to seek wage labour outside their home areas. Settler estates depended on African labour to function, but recruitment proved difficult. Some settlers resorted to “exceptional violence” in order to get labour, in the words of scholars Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale. “The ferocity and unpredictability of the settler assault on the African population threatened to undermine the whole apparatus of colonial control”. The state had to step in to control labour supply, and did so after World War I when mass forced conscription into the Carrier Corps was seen to have been a “success”. (Some success; 95,000 African porters died.) It was a matter of carrots but more often sticks, as this appalling statement exemplifies:
I always treat my natives the same as I treat my children, I try to be kind to them, and to advise and direct them, but when kindness has no effect you have to do the same as they do in the public schools at home and throughout the empire – cane them. (Lt. Col. J.G. Kirkwood, Legislative Council member, Legco debate, 28 November 1941).
The language of infantilization persists today in the narratives around migrants.
Although the state, including the railway, was the largest single employer in the country at this point, thousands of men moved seasonally between the settler estates and African reserves, where their families tended to remain on the land. But over time, whole families moved to live on settler estates as squatters, and were initially allowed to bring their cattle with them. They grew subsistence crops, while women and children also provided labour to settlers during peak harvest and planting times. By 1931, the number of squatters in the highlands had risen to 113,176, the majority Kikuyu. They occupied one million acres of settler land, some of it land that the Maasai had formerly occupied. Although this arrangement brought some benefits for squatters (for one, it allowed them to expand beyond crowded Kikuyuland, creating a toe-hold that lasts to this day), harsh new laws forced African compliance with government. One of the most hated was the Registration of Natives Ordinance of 1915, which forced all males over the age of 15 to carry a form of identity called the kipande.
Over time, settlers became alarmed about the large number of squatter stock on their land, and fearing the diseases that this stock allegedly carried, began forcing squatters and their stock off farms. Resentment at this was among the issues that sowed the seeds of Mau Mau (aka the Land and Freedom Army). “The squatters saw their economic deprivation as linked to their political subordination and it was these two problems that they hoped to eradicate when they took the oath and swore to support the Mau Mau movement,” wrote Tabitha Kanogo in her ground-breaking book Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau.
Maasai and other forced moves
Some communities were forcibly moved in their thousands, to become internally displaced in other parts of colonial Kenya. The most infamous forced migrations were the Maasai moves following two treaties or “agreements” made between Maasai leaders and British protectorate officials in 1904 and 1911. The moves were ordered to make way for white settlement, first in the central Rift Valley, later in the highlands of Laikipia. Maasai from certain socio-territorial sections (not the Maasai as a whole) were initially moved into two reserves, one in the north, the other in the south on the border with German territory (later Tanganyika and Tanzania). In 1904, the British promised the Maasai they could keep Laikipia for ever. But only seven years later, under pressure from settlers, they broke their pledge and moved the Maasai again, this time at gunpoint, into an enlarged southern reserve in what is now Narok County.
It is estimated that the Maasai lost up to at least 50 per cent of the territory they had once used, but the figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The losses did not just involve land, but included the loss of good grazing, access to water sources and sacred sites, and the fatal exposure of both humans and livestock to diseases like East Coast fever and malaria, which were unknown in Laikipia in those days. The ripple effects of these events continue to the present day, in agitation by Maasai for the return of lost land or compensation. Neither is likely to materialise, for a variety of reasons.
The language of infantilization persists today in the narratives around migrants.
Fears about Maasai warriors and the assumed threat they posed to Europeans in the early years of colonial rule were remarkably similar to the current rhetoric in Britain, centred on the irrational fear of “hordes of young men of fighting age” arriving on our shores. Not only is their potential (but unproven) violence feared, but also their perceived sexuality – “Lock up your daughters!” is the cry of the anti-migrant Tory right. This is obviously part of a larger racist trope, referred to as the “black peril” in the scholarship on settler colonies, but also prevalent in the USA, especially in the formerly segregated Deep South.
British administrators saw the warriors as a dangerous standing army, which could let rip at any moment. In a discussion of the merits of confining the Maasai to reserves, Protectorate Commissioner Sir Charles Eliot (the equivalent of a governor) wrote to the Foreign Office in 1903: “[Maasai] simplicity, loyalty, and soldierlike qualities inspire a sympathy which makes people forget that a race which regards fighting and raiding as the only occupations for a young man of honour can never be anything but a dangerous race.” He also condemned the warriors’ alleged “immorality”. In fact, as other officials who knew the Maasai better than Eliot were constantly telling him, they had never attacked Europeans and posed no danger. “And they are not likely to,” wrote Deputy Commissioner Frederick Jackson, “so long as they are treated fairly”. On the contrary, several administrators sympathetic to the Maasai feared that racist South African settlers in the Rift Valley might attack the Maasai if they were not physically separated. For these and other reasons, they were forced into reserves.
Today, the Maasai are not alone in their grievance with historical injustices. The Talai clan of Kericho County, part of the Kipsigis community, has for years sought reparations for forced resettlement. The British evicted them in 1934-36 from the Kipsigis Reserve to an allegedly mosquito-infested valley at Gwassi near Lake Victoria, where they stayed, under supervision, until the mid-1950s. They claim to have been moved to make way for tea plantations, some of which are still owned by UK-based multinationals. A group of Talai wrote to Prince William (elder son of King Charles III) in May this year seeking an apology and his support for reparations. The letter says: “We inherited the pain, you inherited the profit.” They hoped for sympathy from Will “because Kenya is special to him”. Earlier appeals to the British government appear to have received no reply.
Some communities were forcibly moved in their thousands, to become internally displaced in other parts of colonial Kenya.
Historians who have researched Talai history, most particularly the role of ritual leaders or orkoiik, say there is in fact no evidence that the Talai were evicted from land that became tea estates. But they were certainly evicted under colonial laws, said one leading scholar, and “unquestionably have a case”. UN human rights rapporteurs investigated the case and found for the Talai in 2021, which the community hailed as a great victory. However, the UN may have “ordered” the British government to apologise and pay compensation, but that does not mean anything will happen. The Tory government has been a tad preoccupied since Prime Minister Boris Johnson was ousted, and a bitter struggle ensued to replace him. And since Prince William has no political power or influence, all he can say is pole sana.
The Rwanda scheme is becoming more bogged down by the day. It recently emerged that British ministers who backed the plan were warned months ago, by the government’s own advisor, that Rwanda tortures and kills political opponents. The government wants to keep these comments in a Foreign Office report secret, partly in order not to offend Rwanda. Media houses, including the BBC, are challenging this. The doomed flights are postponed until after a judicial review of the policy at the High Court, London, which began on 5 September and is expected to last five days. President Paul Kagame has also thrown a spanner in the works by announcing, after pocketing the £120 million down-payment, that Rwanda will only take 200 migrants – a drop in the ocean. Patel and the Home Office she previously headed (she resigned on Monday 5 September, hours after Truss’s victory) made a major mistake by not specifying, in the MoU with Rwanda, how many migrants Britain planned to deport. Some of us suspect that our government never intended to carry out the policy in the first place. It was simply red meat thrown to Brexit voters.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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