The UK government’s Home Office has admitted for the first time to forcibly deporting Chinese sailors who served in the nation’s merchant Navy during World War II, in the latest stain on the country’s migration department.
A 22-page Home Office investigation into the deportations shared with CNN describes how some sailors had married and had children with women in the English city of Liverpool, and were deported without being able to tell their families where they were going. Many never heard from their husbands or fathers again. The report said that language used to justify the deportations were “racially inflected and prejudicial.”
Arrangements for the repatriations started in 1945 before World War II ended in Europe and affected more than 2,000 Chinese seamen. Refugees from Allied forces were also deported, according to the report. Chinese sailors were targeted because their presence in Liverpool “was seen as disruptive,” the report added. Some were coerced into leaving by being denied employment.
The investigation comes after a parliamentary debate over a year ago during which Kim Johnson, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, asked about the enforced repatriation of thousands of Chinese seamen.
“This report paints a damning picture of the British treatment of Chinese seafarers in Liverpool, with families brutally ripped apart despite their service to our country during the war,” Johnson said in a statement shared with CNN. “It leaves no doubt that the Chinese community received racist and coercive treatment at the hands of the state, where White foreign nationals were treated with far more compassion and respect. These events are a stain on our history and unfortunately there are still many parallels with the way minoritized and migrant workers are treated in our country today.”
She added: “The report finally debunks the myth parroted by successive British governments that these repatriations were all voluntary. The conspiracy between the state and the shipping companies to maintain a cheap pool of labor along racial lines is in many ways the story of empire, and the story of Liverpool.”
The admission from the Home Office comes as its chief, Priti Patel, tries to establish a program to deport to Rwanda single male asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by small boats. It also follows the Windrush scandal, in which the Home Office sent notices of deportation to people who legally migrated from the Caribbean during the war to fill labor shortages, saying they lacked the paper work to stay in the UK. The Home Office apologized for that scandal and its chief at the time, Amber Rudd, was forced to resign.
At the time of the Chinese deportations, foreign men who married British women during the war were not afforded a route to settlement in the UK. The migration policy was changed in July 1946 and wartime marriages became grounds for settlement in the UK, but no effort was made to allow those married men to return to Liverpool. Despite the law change, some of the seafarers continued to be deported until 1949, with around 2,300 being forced out of the country altogether.
Researchers identified 197 marriages between Chinese sailors and British women in Liverpool at the time, but did not have enough materials to be sure there weren’t more and could not identify men who may have had children with British women outside of marriage.
The report was carried out by officials under Kevin Foster, the minister for safe and legal migration, who studied archival materials collated by the National Archives, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London and Liverpool’s Maritime Museum. They also scanned Home Office files as well as those of shipping companies, shipping agents and of other government departments.
“I very much regret some of those who served in the Merchant Navy during WW2 were treated in this way,” Foster write in a letter to Johnson. “We are building a Home Office which is more open about the past, and as part of this I will ensure the story of Chinese seamen’s repatriation will be used to train Home Office staff on the history of race and migration so they will be best prepared to consider the needs of communities and to understand the potential impact of immigration policies.”