immigration controls

Cypriot colonial citizenship and UK immigration controls, 1920s-1950s

This week, the citizenship of Cypriots as part of the British Empire/Commonwealth (prior to Cypriot independence in 1960) has been the subject of debate in the Australian media, thanks to the controversy surrounding Senator Nick Xenophon. My colleague Andrekos Varnava and I have worked on the question of Cypriot citizenship during the colonial era and the subsequent control of Cypriot migration to Britain between the 1920s and the 1950s. The following is based on a much longer article forthcoming with English Historical Review.

The British saw the Cypriot community as a particular problem because of their perceived criminal activities as well as their links to communism and anti-colonialism. The British authorities sought to monitor and control the Cypriot community in London and restrict further numbers from immigrating to Britain through a number of measures in Cyprus, despite the fact that Cypriots were British subjects. At this time, no other colonial group was subjected to such restrictions. The Colonial Office implemented the migration restrictions at the point of departure (i.e. in Cyprus), not because there was disagreement over trying to restrict Cypriots entering the UK, but because this was the most practical way of doing it and the Home Office did not want to implement a point of arrivals system, which could draw criticism from various quarters in the UK.

Most immigration history scholars have overlooked the migration of Cypriots to Britain prior to the Second World War. The British occupied Cyprus in 1878, but Cypriots did not become British subjects until 1914 when Britain annexed the island from the Ottoman Empire when it joined the Central Powers.[1] Cypriots started emigrating to Britain and other destinations after the war.[2] In 1921 the British census showed that there were only 316 Cypriots in England and Wales (105 in London), but by 1931 there were 1,059 (734 in London).[3] Additionally, between 1923 and 1931 the Cypriot government issued 10,000 passports to Cypriots declaring an interest to emigrate to the UK, indicating that most did not take up the option, that there was some travel back and forth from the UK and Cyprus or perhaps a third destination, such as the US.[4]

Cypriots emigrated because, with a rise in population since the British arrival in 1878, rural poverty manifested given the lack of agricultural development and employment in towns, and Cypriots, especially men, took-up the emigration possibilities presented after the Great War.[5]

Amongst the earlier migrants in the inter-war period were sailors working in the East End docks, students and lace merchants, but as time went on more and more unskilled labourers emigrated, and they ended up in the food and hotel service industry in London, mostly working in establishments owned by the Cypriot community in London’s West End.[6]

After the 1931 riots in Cyprus, when government house had been burned to the ground and a British crackdown on both the nationalist right and the communist left followed, the number of migrants increased. Those leaving the island included many political activists, especially left-wing, who were exiled or fleeing the British crackdown. Until 1936, the majority of those coming to Britain were young male Greek Cypriots, but between 1936 and the outbreak of the war, the number of women and children increased so that by 1938 there were more women and children arriving than men, partly because of the restrictions in place and because the women and children were coming over to husbands and fathers.[7] By 1939 there were between 7-8,000 Cypriots in the UK, mostly living within a small borough in the central West End of London.[8]

As Cypriots became British subjects after the annexation of 1914, they were allowed to enter (except men of military age from 1916-9 and subject to the controls outlined above from 1935), reside and work in the UK without restrictions.[9] So the British authorities sought to prevent Cypriots from arriving in Britain. The Colonial Office asked the Home Office if legislation could be introduced to prevent Cypriots from migrating to Britain, but the Home Office refused. Dawe explained:

…they could introduce legislation, but I imagine that the political objections to this may be so great as to make impracticable for them to do so even if they, as a Department, desired it. After all, the right of a British subject to enter this country, provided he can establish his national status by means of his passport, is something more than a mere question of administrative advantage. It is an important and fundamental right under our political system;[10]

The Home Office told the Colonial Office that migration controls at the British port of entry could not be introduced to target Cypriots and that the government was not considering wider controls. This did not mean that the Home Office did not agree that a problem existed, since they were involved in regulating the community, but it meant that the Colonial Office was alone in implementing migration controls, which it could only do at the point of departure.

These first appeared in 1935. The British limited the number of passports issued to Cypriots intending to travel to Britain. To obtain a passport for Britain, Cypriots had to present proof of employment in the UK and pay a bond (in case they had to be repatriated), along the same lines as had been suggested in 1931. But Cypriot authorities soon complained that many Cypriots obtained passports ‘for travel to Greece or somewhere, and then proceeding to England by a devious route.’[11]

Soon more conditions were introduced. By 1937, passports were only issued to applicants who could prove they could speak English, were able to a pay a bond of £30 and an affidavit showing they had employment in Britain.[12] Oakley explained that one of the duties of the Cypriot Liaison Officer, established by the Home Office to maintain relationships between the ‘leaders’ of the Cypriot community and the British government, was to enquire into the bona fides of each applicant and recommend to the Colonial Office whether a passport should be issued.[13] This reduced but did not stop all Cypriot migration, while the demographic make-up of emigrants changed, with more women and children coming in the late 1930s. This was celebrated by the British authorities, as the Liaison Officer explained in 1939:

I attribute the improvement in behaviour largely to the recent immigration of Cypriot womenfolk which has enabled a number of the men to settle down to quiet family life instead of wasting their time and money gambling at dog races or in the cafes.[14]

The British also used passport facilities to monitor and impede movement of suspected communists between Cyprus and Britain. On the advice of the Liaison Officer, at least one suspected communist (and pro-enosist), Kyriacos Pavlou Rossides, was the subject of a refusal order in 1937.[15] Earlier in 1931, the Cypriot government and the Colonial Secretary debated whether to refuse a passport to CPC leading figure Haralambos Vatiliotis (Vatis), a Cypriot British subject who wished to revisit the Soviet Union. Although the Cypriot government was unsure ‘whether a British subject [could] be prevented from leaving the country because he has not got a passport’, the Colonial Office confirmed that the Governor had the power to grant or withhold passport facilities and therefore Vatiliotis’ passport was retained, ‘justified by the public interest.’[16] This debate was then nullified when after the 1931 riots Vatiliotis was deported to Britain.[17]

The outbreak of the Second World War stopped the movement of Cypriots to Britain on a significant scale, although migration restarted after the war. Until the late 1950s, Cyprus was the third largest country of origin of Commonwealth migrants after the West Indies and India and was only passed by Pakistan in 1957. Between 1955 and July 1962, around 24,000 Cypriots migrated to Britain.[18] In this era of large scale African, Caribbean and Asian migration, Cypriots were seen as more ‘desirable’ and there was less hostility towards them than other Commonwealth migrants.[19] Yet the restrictions imposed in the 1930s remained until the Commonwealth Immigrant Act of 1962. This was understood by the British political elites in the lead-up to the act. In a 1959 debate in the House of Lords on restricting colonial immigrants at their point of departure, Lord Chesham (John Cavendish), a Tory Peer, explained that ‘in Cyprus prospective immigrants to this country are required to produce affidavits by persons in this country guaranteeing their support and accommodation.’[20]

John Solomos and Stephen Woodhams argued that the British used border control techniques first employed against Cypriots in the 1930s against broader Commonwealth migration in the 1950s and 1960s.[21] Viewing immigration as a social problem that needed limiting, the restrictions imposed on the Cypriots in the 1930s paved the way for the argument that ‘good race relations’ was achieved by ensuring that ethnic minorities remained as minorities and that strict immigration control was necessary to ensure this. The Cypriot case was a prototype for other cases after the Second World War. The closest examples to the Cypriot case were the border controls on Indians and Pakistanis, with Ian R.G. Spencer writing, ‘Cyprus provided a testing-ground for a set of practices that were widely applied in the Indian sub-continent.’[22] Following the Cypriot immigration restrictions of the 1930s, under the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, only those with government-issued employment vouchers could settle in the UK.


[1]Andrekos Varnava, British Imperialism in Cyprus, 1878-1915: The Inconsequential Possession (Manchester, 2009), pp. 262-5.

[2]See CO67/204/46764; and CO67/207/19844, Stevenson to Churchill, 14 Apr. 1922, containing Annual Report for 1922 by J. M. Ellis, Chief Secretary’s Office.

[3]Robin Oakley, ‘Cypriot Migration to Britain prior to World War II’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 15(3), 1989, p. 513; For 1921, the number of Cypriots is given as 334 in Vic George and Geoffrey Millerson, ‘The Cypriot Community in London’, Race & Class, 8, 1967, pp. 277.

[4]CO67/237/7, Storrs to Passfield, 9 Apr. 1931.

[5]Rolandos Katsiaounis, ‘Η Κυπριακή Παροικία του Λονδίνου και το Αρχιεπισκοπικό Ζήτημα της Κύπρου, 1928-1936’, Annual of the Centre for Scientific Research (Nicosia), 22, 1996, p. 521; Nicolas Manitakis and Michalis N. Michael, ‘Cypriot Emigration to the United States of America (1910 to 1930)’, Chronos, 30, 2014, pp. 99-143.

[6]Oakley, ‘Cypriot Migration to Britain prior to World War II’, pp. 515-6.

[7]Oakley, ‘Cypriot Migration to Britain prior to World War II’, p. 520.

[8]Ibid; and George and Millerson, ‘The Cypriot Community in London’, p. 277.

[9]Ian R.G. Spencer, British Immigration Policy since 1939: The Making of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 2002), pp. 11-2.

[10]CO 67/258/7, Note from Dawe, 2 Jan., 1935.

[11]FCO 141/2523, Acting Colonial Secretary to All Commissioners, 2 Apr. 1936.

[12]Oakley, ‘The Control of Cypriot Migration to Britain Between the Wars’, p. 39.


[14]FCO 141/2554, Thorne to Colonial Secretary, 16 Jan. 1939, p. 4.

[15]CO 67/275/4, Handwritten note from A.R. Thomas to J.B. Williams, 11 Aug. 1937.

[16]See CO 67/240/3.

[17]Heinz Richter, ‘The Cypriot Communist Party and the Comintern’, The Cyprus Review, 15(2), 2003, p. 109.

[18]Hansard, 18 Mar., 1965, col. 311w.

[19]Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (London, 2006) pp. 360-1.

[20]Hansard (Lords), 12 Mar., 1959, col. 1204.

[21]John Solomos & Stephen Woodhams, ‘The Politics of Cypriot Migration to Britain’, Immigrants & Minorities, 14(3), 1995, pp. 251-4.

[22]Spencer, British Immigration Policy since 1939, p. 23.