The UK government’s attitude to refugees, then and now

Britain has a history of barbarism towards refugees.

Merilyn Moos
16 March 2017

Arrival of Jewish refugee children, port of London, February 1939. Wikicommons/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S69279. Some rights reserved.While between 50-75,000 refugees were admitted to the UK between 1933-1949, this number was only about one in ten of those who applied. Even after the government knew about the camps, it turned its back on all those attempting to flee. (The Daily Telegraph was one paper that reported in June 1942 that over a million Jewish people had been killed).

The government’s arguments were shared by leading members of the Jewish establishment: too many Jews would encourage anti-Semitism, and the more one takes in, the more will want to come. Better to have strictly controlled access and then assimilation will be so much easier.

While not all the people trying to escape Nazism were Jews (the Communists for example are regularly ignored), the racism against Jews was only too real amongst sections of the establishment, right and left. The government, in particular the home secretary, the Labour MP Morrison, essentially refused sanctuary to Jews attempting to flee Vichy France. As Morrison repeatedly explained, letting them in would ‘stir up an unpleasant degree of anti-Semitism’. Finally, in late 1942, 1-2000 refugees were accepted. As David Cesarani has documented in Justice Delayed (1992), even after the end of the war, the Labour government refused to let Holocaust survivors into the UK, while admitting thousands of former waffen SS.

But there were a few redeeming features: Kindertransport brought in about 10,000 children over a very short period: roughly between November 1938 and the outbreak of war. The home secretary, the very Conservative Hoare, provided group visas for all the children on one transport, so very different from today. There was even an appeal on the BBC, initiated by parliament, for foster homes for these children.

Now the Kindertransport provides this government with a fig leaf: look what a generous welcoming country we are. While if anything, this government’s refusal to accept refugees is worse than in the 1930s. It is impossible to know exactly how many refugees would like to come to Britain today. Britain is one of the worst destinations for people seeking asylum. In 2016, Britain refused asylum to 71% of applicants. In 2016, it received 38,517 asylum applications (one per 1664 head of population), 3% of asylum claims in Europe and lower than any other country in Europe apart from Spain: less than 0.1% compared to, for example, Sweden with almost 2% and Austria with 1%. Despite its atrocious treatment of  refugees in the Jungle and elsewhere, France, with a similar population to the UK, will be taking 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017 compared to this government’s promise of 20,000 over five years. Moreover, France, unlike Britain, provides asylum seekers with £65.59 a week plus accommodation. Indeed, unlike the UK, most European countries have proper resettlement programmes.

Out of the 4.8m Syrian refugees, less than 4000 adults have so far been accepted out of the meagre 20,000 promised by the government over 5 years. There are 2000 refugees stuck in camps in Serbia. Only about 140 adults have been accepted from the Greek camps, although there are about 25,000 child refugees there, and about 65,000 adults. This barbarism is a product of the European agreement in March 2016, nominally to stop drownings at sea, but which now means refugees have to go through an endless and deadly bureaucratic nightmare. In 2016 more people in fact drowned: about 4,700.

What especially stands out in this catalogue of barbarities is this government’s attitude to accepting refugee children. By comparison, the acceptance of the Kindertransport was generous. Children in need tug at the heart-strings and their proximity and desperation in France could have given the government grounds to present them as ‘exceptional cases’. But the opposite has occurred. Having persuaded Lord Dubs to drop the 3000 goal in his original motion to the Lords on the basis that the government accepted his proposal in principle i.e. that 3000 children in exceptional need should be accepted here, the government have instead taken just over 300 and said: no more.

Even including children under the Dublin scheme who have family here, only about 150 children who were in Calais have been accepted since last September. Despite the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee calling on the Government to halt its plans to limit the number of child refugees to 350 under the Dubs amendment, last week, the Tory MPs (with a handful of exceptions) voted down a proposal to survey local authorities to see who could offer spaces, (Guardian, March 7, 2017). The committee’s report suggests that local authorities are ready to accept 4000 extra children. So this particular barbarism is not a result of local grass roots pressure. It is the government’s own.

The government is tightening up on all criteria relating to refugees and to ‘immigrants’. Even for the few refugees who get here, only a tiny percentage is given the right to work. ‘Illegal’ refugees are regularly threatened with expulsion. In 2016, about 4,000 ‘illegals’ were expelled or ‘encouraged’ to leave. About 3000 asylum seekers were in detention in the third quarter of 2016. In October 2016, the government talked of sending home foreign doctors once enough ‘British’ doctors were available. Last month, in February 2017, it emerged that the Home Office has made 8127 requests to the NHS for patient details in the first 11 months of 2016, leading to 5854 people being traced by immigration enforcement.

And while I am not equating the May government with the Nazis, emphasis on the State drawing a line between people born here or who come here to work, and on the refugee as the outsider and as a non-person, is reminiscent of the Nazi’s constant deadly talk of ‘undesirables’ now echoed by Trump. The Government’s irrational inflexibility about the rights of European residents in the UK suggests crude xenophobia. The Tories vaunt ‘Britain’ as if all who were born here share one unifying national interest (which they of course represent) but this is an excuse for crude xenophobia, a miasma, the construction of a dangerous unreality. It must make UKIP proud.

As in the 1930s, the hysteria of the Daily Mail and other media outlets and the UKIP-lite talk of the government about an immigration crisis overwhelming Britain is legitimating the promotion of xenophobia, and a fear and hostility towards refugees. Remember the media storm about whether the young refugees arriving here were children or not, with David Davis wanting their teeth checked. As Baumann (2016) argued, the mass media with their incessant references to a ‘migration crisis’ (as in the 1930s) have constructed a ‘migration panic’.

To end on a personal note: my parents fled Nazism early in 1933. My father spotted the rise of the ultra-right early on and became an active anti-Nazi. The Gestapo came knocking for him on the night of the Reichstag fire as they rounded up tens of thousands of their opponents. This time we must organise together and not be defeated. And the anti-racist fight is key to such a victory.

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