Today Britain marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps. We remember Britain’s response to the Jewish refugees and look at its response to today’s refugee crisis.
In the dead of night, herds of parents watched their children embark on a train from the periphery of a station in Vienna. The train was destined for Britain, and the children were Jews escaping the persecution they faced in Hitler’s Germany. The Kristallnacht had just happened, a night of organised and deadly violence targeting Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship across Germany and Austria. As concern for the safety of Jewish communities grew, so did pressure on the British government.
British Jewish groups and the Quakers lobbied hard for something to be done. Their work paid off; a debate was held in Westminster on November 21 1938 which led to a Bill that waived certain immigration requirements so as to allow the entry of unaccompanied children ranging from infants up to the age of 17 into Britain. Trains would evacuate the selected children from Nazi occupied areas in what became called “Kindertransport”.
Less than a fortnight after the debate, the first Kindertransport left Vienna packed with unaccompanied minors; British would not provide visas for their parents and sadly many did not survive Hitler’s concentration camps. An estimated 10,000 children arrived to the UK via the Kindertransport. After arriving in Britain most refugees went to live with British families, who had responded in the hundreds to an appeal for foster homes issued on the BBC Home Service by Conservative Home Secretary Samuel Hoare just four days after the commons debate.
The story of Britain’s heroic rescue of Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis is a source of national pride. Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, evoked the memory of it to push for more support for Syrian refugees. She said: “Our long tradition of giving that help and sanctuary, and of providing refuge for the most desperate, is a testimony to what kind of country Britain is and wants to be. That is why we should stand together in Parliament to support that tradition this afternoon.”
But, the Kindertransport story does not accurately depict British attitudes to Jewish refugees. Before the Second World War broke out, asylum was only granted on the basis that British Jewish organisations would cover all the costs. Even the Kindertransport was only agreed to after promises that the arriving children would not become a financial “burden” to the public. Immigration laws were relaxed following the Kristallnacht but once the war broke out, things got harder. In the feverish xenophobia aroused by the war, the government interned some 27,000 Jews as ‘enemy aliens’ alongside Nazi sympathisers until public protests led to their release in 1943.
For those that made it, fear and suspicion surrounded them. The newspapers stoked people’s concerns; a Daily Mail headline from 1938 which reported “Stateless Jews pouring into this country”, warned of “aliens” entering the UK through the “back door”. An Observer extract from 1938 also reads: “A typically baffling illustration of the difficulty is the fact that Britain now has more Jews than Germany ever had. If a further accretion of, say, 100,000 of them come into the country, how could the danger be averted of an anti-Jewish feeling here?” Segments of the populations were also not particularly welcoming of their new neighbours- around 3,000 residents signed a petition in October 1945 in Hampstead, London, where many German-Jewish refugees had settled demanding that “aliens of Hampstead” be evicted from their homes to make room for returning British people.
An estimated 4.6 million refugees have fled Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. According to Mercy Corps, over 4 million Syrians are being hosted by the nation’s most immediate neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. A small number of refugees have been offered sanctuary by other countries. Europe has lagged behind and Britain in particular is failing to pull its weight.
The refugees that have made it to the UK are treated with the suspicion and fear similar to what the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust dealt with. Red doors for refugees in Middlesbrough and red bracelets in Cardiff have singled refugees out in their host communities and opened them up to abuse. Newspapers feature headlines such as: “Refugees ‘flood’ Britain for new homes.” The Prime Minister has referred to refugees in Calais as “swarms”. Groups such as Citizens UK and its 350 member institutions, which include churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, universities, trades unions and community groups, are running a campaign to urge councils to offer sanctuary to refugees. The network is tackling some of the practical issues, such as working out how to provide housing, school places, healthcare, so in a similar way to the British Jewish organisations during the 30’s and 40s, the government doesn’t have to.
Right now David Cameron is considering plans to admit thousands of unaccompanied children into the UK within weeks, the result of calls from a number of charities over concerns they are at serious risk of falling prey to people traffickers. This would be in addition to the 20,000 refugees the UK has already pledged to take direct from refugee camps over the next five years. If the plans go ahead, the image of children arriving in the UK will be a source of pride like the newsreels showing the Kindertransport children disembarking off the trains came to be. But let’s not forget why most came alone. We wouldn’t let their parents in- once again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.