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The first significant period of modern British history in which refugees became significant is that covering the years, roughly, from 1880 until the inception of the Refugee Convention in 1951. During this period, which witnessed the two largest sudden occurrences of mass-population movement occasioned by the two World Wars, Britain found herself facing a new problem, sensitive and difficult both in humanitarian terms, and also political feasibility. The first major piece of British legislation which considered the issue of refugees was the Aliens Act 1905. Prior to this, there had been a series of Acts which sought to impose some sort of system of regulation of arriving aliens. Mostly, these required masters of in-bound ships to make reports of foreign aliens that they were carrying, and obliged all in-coming aliens to report to the Secretary of State upon arrival. The 1905 Act, however, introduced the first system of comprehensive registration and immigration control. The Act placed control of such matters firmly with the Home Secretary. The most striking aspect of this new legislation was that it offered, for the first time, the Home Secretary the power to deport aliens whom he believed to be either criminals or paupers. The first category is understandable and, but 21st century standards even acceptable; the second is not.The second major piece of legislation followed in 1914, with the Aliens Registration Act. This had more tangible effects on the accuracy of information relating to immigrants, as it made it compulsory for all immigrants over the age of 16 to register with the police. The immigrants were required to give detailed information to the police of their names, addresses, occupations and race. If any such particulars changed, immigrants were required to register such changes. There was also a registration fee. Although the legislation looks to be relatively favourable to immigrants, the reality was somewhat different. This was largely due to the fact that the Aliens Act was weakly enforced. As Winder states, it soon became obvious that the scheme was ‘clumsy and unworkable’.[2] This, then, was the legislation that was in place when the Great War broke out.


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