30 Years
HomeBlunkett ends passports injustice, 34 years on

Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Wednesday July 3, 2002
The Guardian.

Some 35,000 overseas British citizens who were left stateless when the 1968 Labour government closed the door on the entry of east African Asians are finally to be given the opportunity to take up full British citizenship.

The home secretary, David Blunkett, is to announce the change tomorrow in an amendment to the immigration, nationality and asylum bill. He said last night the change would "right a historic wrong" which had left stateless tens of thousands of Asian people who had worked closely with British colonial administrations.

The 35,000 people involved were given British passports as a result of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act passed by the Labour government in three days on the back of a wave of anti-immigration racism led by Enoch Powell and protesting Smithfield meat porters.

But as Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi became independent from British rule the passport holders discovered that their status as "British overseas citizens" was worthless because their passports did not give them the right to live in Britain.

The 1968 decision has long been regarded by senior Labour figures, including Roy Hattersley, as one of Labour's most shameful episodes. White people in similar circumstances were given full British passports while those with an Asian background were given worthless second class status.

"We are righting a historical wrong which has left a num ber of overseas citizens without any right of abode, either in the UK or elsewhere," Mr Blunkett said.

"Overseas British citizen status is a legacy of decolonisation, when some overseas citizens were treated unfairly, which was then compounded by the 1968 Immigration Act and the 1981 Nationality Act. The government is acting to put right those wrongs. We have a moral obligation to these people going back a long way."

Most of those involved were Indians living and working outside India on independence in 1948. They were mainly in civil service and commercial jobs in British colonies in east Africa. After the rise of Idi Amin and other repressive east African regimes many went to live in Malaysia. Fiona Mactaggart, the Labour MP for Slough, who has long campaigned for the change, said it rectified one of the biggest injustices in British post-war immigration policy: "It has created a lot of bitterness because the divide in citizenship was specifically racial. British overseas citizenship was created to give second class status to those whose heritage was Asian while those whose heritage was white were allowed to settle in Britain. As a result, that racial division has been inherent in British immigration and nationality laws for 30 years."

The British high commission in Malaysia has estimated there are up to 12,000 British overseas citizens in that country, mainly elderly people of Indian descent who were unlikely to want to go to Britain.