Image: Memorial to the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street Station. Credit: Roger Davies, CC 2.0.
Eighty years ago, German Jewish parents sent their children to the UK on a scheme known as the Kindertransport. Some 10,000 children arrived in the framework of a programme of which the UK is justly proud. But there was a dark side. Most never saw their parents again – the majority of them were murdered by the Nazis – and although many of the children grew up to lead happy and fulfilled lives, many struggled for years without their parents, who were not admitted to the UK under the terms of the scheme. In a recent feature in the Guardian some of those children, now in their nineties, spoke about the bravery of their parents in allowing them to travel alone to face an uncertain future, for in doing so they saved their lives.
Among those children was Alf Dubs, now Lord Dubs, one of the UK’s foremost spokespersons for refugee rights. When the so-called “refugee crisis” began in the summer of 2015, Lord Dubs was one of the most vocal public figures calling for a new Kindertransport for young migrants. His “Dubs Amendment” to the government’s proposed scheme to bring to the UK 3,000 vulnerable refugee children from conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa was meant to allow similar such children already in France, Italy or Greece to enter the UK. The programme entered into operation in April 2016. Earlier this month it was revealed that the number of children who have actually entered the UK under both schemes is “incredibly low”: 20 in the case of the Home Office’s Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme and 220 under the Dubs Amendment. Given that there are thought to be more than 20,000 unaccompanied children in Europe, these figures are paltry and it is no wonder that Lord Dubs is calling – in another echo of the Kindertransport – for the government to allow 10,000 of them to come to the UK.
It is now easy to celebrate the Kindertransport, forgetting how controversial it was at the time and overlooking the fact that the government of the day wanted others to guarantee the children’s financial support. Still today, in fact increasingly so, liberal democracies like the UK celebrate their “proud traditions” of helping the oppressed at the same time as – indeed, even as a way of – justifying policies designed to keep out refugees. It is hard to believe that a programme such as that initiated after World War II under the auspices of the International Tracing Service to find missing children in Central Europe and to repatriate or resettle them, would ever be introduced today, even though the resources for such an enterprise are far more readily available now than they were in the late 1940s.
The ethical environment has changed: after the war it was regarded by the countries that formed the newly-minted United Nations as a duty to locate and repatriate unaccompanied children; today, we turn a blind eye and pride ourselves on our fine record of providing sanctuary.
Eighty years after Kristallnacht, which marked a heightened intensity in the Nazis’ “war” against the Jews, and eighty years after the Kindertransport, we live in a world in which fear of refugees and the politicization of the supposed threats to western ways of life represented by refugees have become commonplace. The examples of Donald Trump’s attacks on the Central Americans seeking to make their way through Mexico to the US as “criminals”, of Jair Bolsonaro’s references to African refugees as “the scum of the earth” (he had presumably just been reading Arthur Koestler), of Viktor Orbán’s refusal to permit refugees to enter Hungary, and Poland’s similar stance, are just the most obvious examples.
But the issue is much more widespread than pointing to countries governed by the hard right might suggest. What the Kindertransport shows us is that where ethical concerns about care for the persecuted prevails, good can be done, even in the face of opposition. But the situation is even more complicated than it was in the 1930s. We live in a time of unprecedented change, not just in terms of the dismantling of the architecture which created and sustained the post-war international order, but especially with respect to climate change. In these circumstances, history – that is, our understanding of the past and our relationship to it – also needs to change. It bears repeating: no one wants to leave the home and those who do so are either persecuted, desperate, or both.
The rich countries cannot continue for much longer to exist in a world in which their policies contribute to the creation of refugees, in which their economies attract migrants and to a large extent depend on them no matter how vociferously they deny this fact, and in which a changing climate will in due course make the recent migrations of people look like just a prelude. Isolationism and a return to social Darwinism in the international sphere will result only in tragedy for refugees and then, in due course, for everyone else. Small gestures, such as the admission of vulnerable children, can show us that people everywhere need and deserve the same access to basic provisions. Recalling the Kindertransport eighty years on reminds us of our fundamental, shared humanity.