The concept of return is key to the migrant experience and the discourse surrounding migration. The hope for an eventual (prosperous) journey back to the country left behind is embedded into the motivations for economic migration in particular, even if such a return to a former homeland never takes place for many of those who for whatever reason settle in another country. However, the associations surrounding the discursive conception of ‘going home’ can have their meanings transformed from pleasurable anticipation to bullying threat, depending on the context in which the discourse is employed.
This paper will examine two strands of repatriation discourse as articulated by political organisations and campaign groups in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain, the "humanitarian", ie language that posits that removal from Britain would principally benefit the migrant or minority group in question, and the "exterminatory", depicting the targeted group as an existential threat to the fabric of the wider society that must be removed by any means possible. Beginning with the Irish Famine of the 1840s and taking the examination up to the germination of an Islamophobic political current in the 1990s, it will consider the complex interplay between these two manifestations of anti-migrant sentiment.
The two forms of expression were not exclusive, but rather were intertwined, sometimes being expressed by the same organisations and the same individuals. These coalesced with an official state discourse that presented a policy of (usually limited) repatriation as a practical response to ‘practical’ problems caused by mass migration, in particular the migrant as financial burden on the tax-payer. It was frequently argued, in a number of different socio-political contexts, that, in a Britain unable to provide economic security, decent housing, or to protect migrants from endemic racism or religious prejudice, life in a ‘homeland’ (to which the British descendants of migrants might also be sent) would be preferable to continued residence in the United Kingdom. As we shall examine, this overlapped with the policy of some minority communal organisations themselves.
At the same time, the targeted group, by their very presence, could in this language constitute a threat that must be dealt with as quickly as possible, whether this was principally viewed as a challenge to a religious status quo, an abstract conception of ‘Britishness’, an equally ambiguous ‘whiteness’ (especially in a post-colonial context), or, in the peculiar circumstances of war, an immediate issue of national security. In certain cases, both strands would simultaneously be employed by political groups, although at different audiences. Throughout, the ruptures and continuities of this discourse over a 150 year period will be considered.