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From World War II 'enemy' internment to Windrush: Britain quickly forgets its gratitude to economic migrants

Deported and drowned: an Italian memorial in London to those who died on the Arandora Star in 1940. Martin Addison / Remembrance for the Drowned via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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The Windrush scandal of recent months, alongside revelations of the appalling conditions in immigration detention centres in the UK, have highlighted serious issues with the way migrants are treated in Britain.

To Anglo-Italians in particular, interned in Britain during World War II, there are many similarities between their experiences almost 80 years ago and what the Windrush immigrants endured more recently.

The Windrush immigrants arrived from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971 in order to help plug the British postwar labour shortage. Almost a century before, Italians had travelled to Britain in order to run – and work in – cafes and restaurants, in types of jobs not usually perceived as threats to British workers. With both the Windrush immigrants and the Italians, their labour was appreciated, even though they often suffered verbal and physical abuse because of their race.

During World War II, foreign nationals from countries with which Britain was at war became “enemy aliens” and were subject to various restrictions. A few months into the war, the order was given to arrest them. Up to 30,000 Germans, Austrians, and Italians were arrested during May and June 1940 and sent to temporary holding camps, and then to semi-permanent camps on the Isle of Man. The majority of the internees were men, though approximately 4,000 women and children were also interned. Some of the men were then deported to camps in Canada and Australia.

Warth Mill

The temporary holding camps where the internees were sent immediately after their arrest were barely habitable by the time the first of them arrived. The worst of all these camps by far, however, was Warth Mill, in Bury, near Manchester.

Warth Mill was an abandoned cotton mill where buckets were provided as toilets, floors were covered in oil from abandoned machinery, windows were broken, and rats roamed freely. Although only in existence for a few weeks in 1940, the terrible conditions remained seared on the memories of those who experienced detention at Warth Mill, or “Wrath Mill”, as it was labelled by one of its inmates.

Like those in present-day immigration detention centres, the internees had no idea how long they would be held in detention, they lacked adequate healthcare, and were treated like criminals. The inhumane conditions at Warth Mill led to a hunger strike, much in the same way that more than 100 women went on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood in February 2018

Although many of the internees from Germany and Austria held at Warth Mill had only recently arrived in Britain as refugees from Nazi oppression, for the Italian internees it was a very different story. The majority of them had lived in the UK for several decades and had established lives and businesses in the country. The often significant contributions to their communities were no protection against incarceration.

For those Italians of the 1940s who had not naturalised and become British citizens, their rights were limited in a similar way to those Windrush immigrants who have not gone through the naturalisation process. In the case of the Italians, Britain was at war – but the fact that the Windrush immigrants can be treated in such a similar way during peacetime is even more concerning.

Dangerous deportations

In June and July 1940, most of the internees at Warth Mill were being moved on to Liverpool and the Isle of Man. The Italian inmates presumed that would also be their fate, but unknown to them, a large proportion were selected by the authorities to be transported to Canada on a ship called the Arandora Star. When it left Liverpool 1 July, 1940, 1,678 men had been forced onto a ship designed to carry 500.

Internees were crammed below decks and the exits were guarded by barbed wire. On the morning of July 2, 1940, just over half those on board lost their lives when the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Those that survived had to wait several hours in the freezing sea to be rescued and many were then loaded on to another boat, the Dunera, and sent on a traumatic journey to Australia.

Public opinion was initially in favour of the internment of Germans, Austrians, and Italians during the war. However, after the public became aware of the tragedy of the Arandora Star – and as a result of campaigns by various members of parliament – opinion changed and supported the release of “loyal” internees. It took several months, but eventually internees were able to apply for release and many of them served in the armed forces.

In a similar way, recent campaigns in the House of Commons, such as those spearheaded by David Lammy have led to public apologies and a review of policy.

What the Anglo-Italian community hoped several decades ago – and what the Windrush immigrants hope today – is that effective policy can be developed without the trauma immigrants have experienced in the past.

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