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Governments must show compassion and give safe harbour to those in danger

COMMENT: Why the Wiener Holocaust Library and The Association of Jewish Refugees are speaking out now

Toby Simpson Michael Newman
31 March 2023, 11.06am

Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the announcement of the Illegal Migration Bill


Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Two British organisations have chronicled the lives and represented the interests of the Jewish refugees from Nazism – The Wiener Holocaust Library and The Association of Jewish Refugees. And we are both increasingly concerned about the impact of the government’s proposed Illegal Migration Bill and the discourse and language surrounding its formulation. 

While the library’s collections attest to the agony experienced by those who had to flee persecution, the AJR has continuously supported the refugees and survivors, and today disburses welfare aid to those in need. Imbued with survivors’ accounts, we are sensitised to the plight of those fleeing oppression, whether through tyranny or war. We urge this and all governments to demonstrate compassion and give safe harbour to those in danger. 

The UK government’s proposed Illegal Migration Bill threatens to criminalise men, women and children who enter the UK on small boats. Ostensibly, this is to deter unsafe journeys and disrupt the business model of people smugglers. Yet the provision for safe and legal routes to the UK is very limited. By being unable to definitely and categorically ensure whether the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the government has recognised that it may breach the ECHR as well as the Human Rights Act, which the UK has not only signed but helped author.

The Refugee Council rightly points out that people make these dangerous journeys because they have no other options to reach the UK – and that two thirds of those arriving on small boats last year would qualify for refugee status.

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The UN Refugee Agency has also voiced its concern about the new legislation. If passed, this bill may contravene the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. In the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, during which millions of people were murdered, rendered stateless, and displaced, the UN Refugee Convention was an important step towards better international humanitarian protection for refugees from persecution. We must not turn back the clock: failure to afford refugees with safe routes and protections all too often results in further terrible and avoidable suffering.

Among the testimonies in the library’s collections are eye-witness accounts of some of the estimated 70,000 Jewish refugees who were able to come to Britain, a number which includes approximately one-sixth of the Austrian Jewish community.

There are letters from parents in continental Europe who sought to secure visas for their families and of those who found refuge such as the children on the Kindertransports, desperately waiting to hear from their relatives, with communication all too often eventually ceasing. There is also often an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to Britain for giving refuge, including towards the officials at the consulates in Germany and Austria whose disobedience of the rules saved lives. 

Our work today is guided by the mission of learning from the past, to develop and commission resources to help teach about the horrors and lessons of the Shoah so that future generations better understand the dangers of antisemitism, nationalism, and intolerance. Included in this learning are governments and those who guide them.

Any assessment of refugee policy of the 1930s must conclude that more lives could have been saved. The Kindertransport is illustrative: 10,000 mostly Jewish children under the age of 16 were given refuge, but why not their parents and siblings? The contributions of those who were given refuge is well documented, but who else might similarly have enhanced the cultural and scientific life of this country?

If ‘Never Again’ is to become reality rather than a refrain, we must show leadership to open our doors to bring those at risk out of harm’s way. There is some precedent here in Britain for doing so. The dwindling of the generation who experienced Nazism and the 85th anniversary of the Kindertransport this year are timely reminders of our obligations.

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