Skip to main content

Forced Repatriation of Chinese Seamen from Liverpool After World War Two

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

It is a privilege to bring forward my first Chamber Adjournment debate on an issue of deep concern to both the long-established Chinese community in Liverpool and constituents of Liverpool, Riverside, as well as many communities across the country. I am really disappointed that I cannot be in the Chamber in person this evening. I tested positive for covid over a week ago, and, sadly, I am still self-isolating.

Liverpool is proud to be the home of the longest established Chinese community in Europe, connected to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other ports of the far east by Alfred Holt and Company, a shipping line founded in the mid-19th century. The Chinese community grew quickly into thousands and established Chinatown in the heart of the city. The Imperial Arch’s red and gold gateway stands tall today as the largest of its kind in the world outside of China. A thriving community established itself in the heart of Liverpool behind the south docks. Grocery stores, restaurants, lodgings houses and The Nook pub were all busy with Chinese seamen on shore leave and the hundreds, then thousands, who settled and made Liverpool their home.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the forced repatriation of thousands of Chinese seamen by the Home Office after the second world war, which left many families abandoned without support and with no idea what happened to their loved ones. I first became aware of this injustice over 15 years ago, after listening to personal testimonies from the descendants on a Radio 4 broadcast. Becoming an MP has provided me with the opportunity to support their fight for justice. This was one of the most nakedly racist actions ever undertaken by the British Government and is a shameful stain on our history, yet many of the actual details and the decisions associated with this atrocity are yet to come to light. The families are still searching for answers; it has never been formally acknowledged, investigated or apologised for.

Many of the deported seamen had served in the allied war effort. They put their lives on the line in enemy waters to support the British war effort in our hour of need by keeping us fed, fuelled and safe. During the war as many as 20,000 Chinese seamen worked in the shipping industry out of the Liverpool docks, and they were treated really badly, only receiving half the basic wages of their British crewmates and on worse terms and conditions. They were not granted the standard £10 a month war risk bonus, and as a reward for their bravery, their families and loved ones received less compensation when they died in battle.

The Liverpool Chinese Seamen’s Union went on strike and eventually won pay increases in 1942, but their battle for full equality continued. The Chinese seamen would be employed working in the most dangerous jobs in the engine rooms and below decks. Thousands gave their lives during the perilous campaign under heavy bombardment from Nazi U-boats. By the end of the second world war, the Home Office estimated that there were around 2,000 decommissioned Chinese seamen. Those who survived the war returned to Liverpool, where many had established relationships with local women. They set up home and started families, but from late 1945, hundreds suddenly disappeared with barely a trace.

Unknown to the families, behind closed doors, in the corridors of power, decisions to remove their unwelcome presence were set in motion. Intent on expelling these so-called “undesirables”, the Home Office, under the post-war Attlee Government, issued instructions to deny their right to work onshore. Immigration officers began to amend the papers carried by Chinese seamen. This harassment, however, did not go far enough to produce the intended result, so a plan was set in motion in the depths of this Parliament for mass forcible repatriation.

In October 1945, a secret meeting was called in Whitehall, which sparked the opening of a new file, titled “Compulsory repatriation of undesirable Chinese seamen”. The Home Office decreed that its contents were not to be discussed in the House of Commons, the Lords or with the press, or to be acknowledged to the public. At this meeting, it was alleged that the seamen had caused trouble with the police, and that their wives were no more than prostitutes, but no evidence has ever been produced to justify those scandalous claims. Their revelation has caused untold distress to the descendants of these seamen, many of whom were brought up by their stalwart mothers, facing poverty and isolation after their fathers were forcibly repatriated.

The following July, the Liverpool constabulary carried out the orders issued by the British Government to indiscriminately round up and forcibly repatriate thousands of Chinese seamen on Merseyside. Along with the official records, oral testimonies from Liverpudlians who witnessed the events provide accounts of immigration wagons prowling the streets of Liverpool and seizing men by force, police forcing their way into boarding houses, and home visits from undercover officers to seize documents and erase any record of the deported seamen.

We know that about 2,000 seamen were deported, snatched from their homes and their loved ones and dumped unceremoniously on the shores of a homeland that many had left decades before. Their families were never told what was happening; they were never given a chance to object, or even a chance to say goodbye. Most of the Chinese seamen’s British wives and partners went to their graves never knowing the truth, left to believe that their husbands had abandoned them along with their children, suffering immeasurable trauma from the actions of the British Government. Only decades later, when declassified official records revealed the shocking truth, did the children begin to understand what had happened after the war and begin to make sense of the wrongs that had been done to them, causing untold grief for the remaining family members—but, for all the painful revelations that have been uncovered, much is still unknown.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to some of the descendants for their tireless efforts to uncover this grave injustice—Peter Foo, Yvonne Foley, Judy Kinnin, Perry Lee, Brian Wong, Linda Gates, Maria Lin-Wong, Rosa Wong and Keith Cocklin, alongside many others, as well as to Zi Lan Liao and the Pagoda Chinese Community Centre in Liverpool Riverside—and for shedding some light on what happened. I pay tribute to them for their extensive research in near-impossible circumstances, and their commitment to righting this wrong and winning some form of justice for all those whose fathers and husbands were wrenched from them by the British state. Their painstaking investigations have been invaluable in bringing a shameful episode of British history to light, but they have received no official help with this immense task. However, despite the tireless efforts of many of the children—a number of whom are my constituents—tracing the stories of their fathers has proved incredibly difficult. Shipping lists are incomplete, and inconsistent naming systems full of errors mean that many have been lost to history.

At a time of increased race hate attacks on our east Asian communities owing to racism stoked by covid, it is vital that we fight for long overdue justice for the Chinese community in Liverpool by uncovering and acknowledging this shameful history of state violence. I have made several attempts to call for a formal acknowledgement and apology from the Government for these injustices on the Floor of the House. I have asked the Prime Minister directly for an acknowledgement and an apology during Prime Minister’s questions, but my request was met with bluster and a clear lack of understanding. I have also written to the Leader of the Opposition asking him to apologise on behalf of the Labour party, on whose watch this happened.

Will the Minister today, on behalf of his Government, commit to launching an inquiry into the decision to forcibly repatriate these seamen after the second world war, as a chance to set the record straight, formally acknowledge these events, and issue a full and formal apology for these grave injustices, so that the families can finally get the answers they have been seeking? Will he also agree to meet me and the families who have waited a lifetime for justice? Many are now in their 70s, and, sadly, many have died. Does the Minister agree that justice delayed is justice denied?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing the debate, and on being such a passionate advocate on this issue. I am sure that we all wish her a swift recovery from the coronavirus, although, as we have just seen, covid does not seem to be having too much of an impact on her.

I also think it worth paying tribute to former Members, such as the former Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, Luciana Berger, and the former Member for Liverpool, West Derby, Stephen Twigg, who brought this issue to the attention of my predecessors. While it is right that we discuss it on the 75th anniversary of the deportations, I know this is not the first time it has been raised on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member’s predecessor, the indomitable Bessie Braddock, Member of Parliament for the wonderfully titled constituency Liverpool Exchange, first raised this with the then post-war Labour Government back in 1946. It was with great interest and admiration that I read about Mrs Marion Lee, who in August 1946 helped to create an organisation to campaign for the rights of Chinese seamen’s families, which must have been particularly brave given wider societal attitudes at that time. I also pay tribute, as the hon. Member did, to Peter Foo and others in Liverpool who have campaigned long and hard on this issue in the search for answers about what happened.

I do recognise the strength of feeling on Merseyside about what happened during this post-war period. I hear the hon. Member’s concerns and I will come on to some next steps later. I am glad that she has had a further opportunity to place her views and what happened at that time on record. I am also pleased that our current immigration rules and equalities legislation would preclude this type of behaviour from occurring now. Furthermore, I will ensure that her letter to the Home Secretary is responded to as soon as possible.

The Chinese community have had such a wonderful and welcome impact on our culture and are integral to modern Britain. I am proud that so many Chinese nationals have now made Britain their choice of destination for study, with 1 million student visas issued since 2010; their choice of destination to work, with over 55,000 work visas issued since 2010; and, ultimately, their choice of home, with over 60,000 grants of settlement and over 45,000 grants of citizenship. Our British nationals overseas group reflects the UK’s historical moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who chose to retain ties to the UK by taking up this status at the point of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997.

Turning to the background, back in 1946 there were some 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese seamen based in the city of Liverpool. Chinese seamen made up almost 15% of the entire manpower of the merchant fleet at that time. I understand that the seamen in question were subject to the wartime regulations, which included what we would now regard as strict disciplinary conditions to obey orders to join ship and contractual obligations to return to their home country. Sadly, that meant that they faced not only the perils of war, but the overt racism that was common at that time. All too often, they were the ones literally at the bottom of the ship, on the lower decks, and it is all too easy to work out what their fate would be if they were there when a torpedo struck their ship. That is why I am always proud that my own branch of the Royal British Legion, the Paignton branch, commemorates Merchant Navy Day each year, alongside the other commemorations to remember all those who serve, to include the men who gave their lives trying to keep this country fed and supplied at the height of world war two.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for bringing this historical injustice to the House and her brilliant campaigning on behalf of her constituents. I know it means so much to the east and south-east Asian communities living in the UK now. These Chinese merchant seamen were subjected to the cruellest racism, which we have seen rear its ugly head again during the pandemic. Will the Minister take this opportunity to condemn the anti-Asian racism that we have seen raise its head again during the pandemic, because a historical injustice has taken place and it is time that we learned lessons and actually saw progress on this issue?

I certainly join the hon. Member in condemning those who seek to use any time of crisis as an opportunity to sow division, to exacerbate community relations or to peddle their own brand of prejudice and try to blame others for the situations that we face. Whatever anyone thinks of the decisions of the Chinese Government, that is very different from then seeking to stoke hatred against the people of China and against the many people of Chinese heritage who have made the UK their home, who are British and who are part of what our British values should be—that we are a welcoming society that looks at people as who they are, not what the colour of their skin is.

The Chinese seamen who had been in the Merchant Navy during the war form part of the vast numbers of people displaced at the end of the conflict. This included members of the armed forces, refugees, prisoners of war and, of course, merchant seamen of all nations. The records relating to the activity that happened 75 years ago are incomplete. I am somewhat reliant on the same archive material that hon. Members and their constituents have access to, given that Home Office documents and records have been moved to the National Archives in Kew. And given the passage of time, people will of course realise that those directly involved clearly no longer work in the Home Office. Many will have died and, even if they are still alive, the youngest that they are likely to be is in their late 90s and probably aged well over 100.

The relevant powers used came from the Essential Work (Merchant Navy) Order, which came into force on 26 May 1941 and was owned by the then Ministry of Labour. The order was made under the Defence (General) Regulations 1939. The Home Office had always left the management and legality of the system to the then major shipping countries. This was not a matter relating to immigration rules as such, given that the modern concept of immigration control would not emerge until some decades later, but one which, according to archived historical records, was discussed by Home Office officials in Whitehall and immigration officers in Liverpool. Having looked at some of those documents, the language used to describe both merchant seamen and their wives in official records is not what would be acceptable today.

What those records also show is that a programme of repatriations did take place, starting in November 1946 and continuing for much of 1947. They were not confined to Chinese nationals and were against the backdrop of the wider work of demobilising and dealing with displaced people at the end of the war. There is contemporaneous evidence to suggest the then Ministry of Transport attempted to secure work for the merchant seamen and, during the initial repatriation process between November and December 1945, a number of Chinese seamen were identified as having British wives and their removal was rightly deferred. There is evidence to suggest that no Chinese merchant seamen who had British wives were deported, although I appreciate that some were later deported due to their criminal activity. But given the passage of time, we cannot say for certain from official records that this did not happen, and I am aware of the comments and particularly the evidence that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside cited.

I congratulate my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), on securing this very important debate. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of my good comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), on this issue. I wonder if the Minister agrees with me that this historic injustice is a blatant form of racism against the Chinese seamen. Would he come forward with a full acknowledgement and apology for this community?

I thank the hon. Member for his comments. It is hard to come to any other conclusion from reading the paperwork of the time, and let us be clear that, at the time, racism was normalised in society. It was still perfectly lawful to deny someone a job based purely on their race or ethnicity, and it is hard to not draw a conclusion from the way people are referred to that it is explicit. They are consistently referred to as “Chinese seamen”, not “unemployed seamen” or “seamen now surplus to requirements”. Consistently through the documents, “Chinese seamen” are talked about. As I touched on, there were wider repatriations going on at the end of the war, but it is very clear to see and, certainly from some of that documents that I have read, the conclusion is inescapable that ethnicity, in terms of being Chinese, was a clear factor in some of the decisions being taken. Some derogatory comments were made against those women who had married. It is hard to believe that those comments would have been made against perhaps, for the sake of argument, American or Canadian seamen who happened to be in Liverpool at the time. I will come on to some of my thoughts on the wider position and potentially what further action we could take later.

We must learn from the past to inform the present. The Home Office has defined and published our vision and mission of creating a safe, fair and prosperous UK, and we have set out our new core values of being a Department that is compassionate, courageous, collaborative and respectful. We recently launched the One Home Office transformation programme as part of the sweeping reforms we are making in the Department. Central to this programme is the transformation of our culture towards a more open and compassionate Department to build the Department into one that the British people look up to and admire.

We are also taking steps to ensure that we consistently involve communities and stakeholders in our policy development by identifying who the stakeholders or impacted groups are across different business areas and then conducting meaningful engagement with those communities. Importantly in relation to this issue, as part of the Home Office comprehensive improvement plan in response to the Windrush lessons learned review, every member of Home Office staff will undertake training on the history of migration and race in the UK so they can better understand the impact of departmental decisions, including when developing and applying immigration policy.

I have heard at some length what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside says, and I have heard what has also been stated in the Chamber. I am very happy, and very keen actually, to say that if the hon. Member would like to pass on details of any particular cases, we would be happy to look into them further at the Home Office, bearing in mind, as she touched on in her own speech, that the historical records may be incomplete. They are not there in their entirety, and of course with the passage of time, as I touched on earlier, we cannot now realistically speak to those who were involved in these operations, given that we do not believe any of them are still left alive.

In relation to those records, I can, however, confirm that I have asked officials in the Home Office to undertake research into this action, and I have asked them to report back after recess. I will come back to the hon. Member with the outcome of this research and any recommendations it provides to me, or at least try to give some closure to the children who survive. I have been particularly struck by the stories of those affected by this issue who, not unreasonably after 75 years, just want answers: what happened to their dad, and what happened at that time? That is the thing, although I have to say that I do not think I can promise we will be able to do that for everyone, given the passage of time. As I say, the records, sadly, are not complete, but we would certainly be happy to engage with them—and I would certainly be happy to meet the hon. Member—to hear some of their evidence, see if that is something we can use and, as I say, see if we can bring at least some information and some closure to them as part of this process.

Following this review, I will ensure that the post-war deportation and repatriation of Chinese merchant seamen is captured as part of the material used to train Home Office staff members on the history of migration and race in the UK that I have just mentioned. I think it is important that we learn from the past. We would all sit here now and say that this is not a policy that would be implemented today, and it is absolutely shocking that those who had literally risked their lives throughout the battle of the Atlantic then found themselves treated in that manner. I think it is right that we capture this and ensure that those taking decisions in the future are aware of where we have come from as a nation as we move forward in our mission.

Let me conclude by again expressing my gratitude to the hon. Member for raising this important issue in the House this evening. On behalf of the Government, I express our deep regret that some of those who had faced the most extreme dangers of war to keep our country supplied in its darkest hours were treated in this way.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.