Remembering Britain's history of welcoming refugees

Image credit: Takver via Flickr

We are in the middle of a crisis of morals. In the name of fear, the US issued a ban that bars people from seven countries - Somali, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - from entering the US for 120 days, and perhaps more. Yet they make a fundamental mistake in believing that you can fight fear with fear, and use people as pawns. In order to combat that, both we and them need reminders of who these policies affect. We need to keep our goal in mind, to keep the motivation to resist, and they need to attach human faces to their actions.

The power of stories is burgeoning today. Just this week on Monday 30 January, descendants from immigrants spoke up at the anti-Trump protests on King’s Parade, in praise of the UK’s compassion towards their ancestors when they needed a home, which gave their descendants an abode in Cambridge today. Yet they were also in outrage of Theresa May’s negligence to uphold the morals that made them proud to make the UK their home. Their message was heard by the thousand people present that evening, and many more on the Internet. The crisis became tangible and closer in a way it was not before. These people’s voices need to be heard, to remind those in power that the choices they make will determine the courses of real people’s lives. On Monday, Said Jalali, one of the speakers, said the same to Trump: “Engage. Engage with the people you're banning. Engage with your opposition." Here is a concrete reminder of those stories, of five times that Britain has welcomed refugees.

1. It started with the 50,000 French Protestants, or Huguenots, in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, who were fleeing persecution from the Catholics after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. 30,000 Protestants were killed, but thousands of others found a place in Britain, bringing their knowledge of organisational and industrial processes. They began gardening vegetables, fruit and flowers, then supplied them to London and other cities. We see their impact even today: 7 of the 24 founders of the Bank of England were Huguenots. John Holland, who improved microscope design, descended from Huguenots.     

2. Then we welcomed 70,000 Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 40s, escaping the Kristallnacht. The government terminated its existing visa regulations to allow 10,000 children direct entry, and housed them in foster homes, hotels, and hostels throughout the UK.

3. Also in the 1930s, 4,000 Basque children arrived on a ship called the Habana after evacuation during the Spanish civil war. They were housed in a temporary camp in Eastleigh, but eventually found foster homes across the country, where they found safety until their return after the civil war ended.

4. In 1956, the Russians chased some 200,000 people out of Hungary with the threat of the Soviet rule; a tenth of them sought refuge in the UK. The Guardian reports, Peter Farago, who was amongst them, says, “People were incredibly friendly,” said Farago. “I think it must be horrible now but journalism was very different then and the press was very positive about migrants. No one made me feel I didn’t belong.”

5. 60,000 Asians in Uganda were denounced and forced to leave in 1972, when dictator Idi Amin labelled them “bloodsuckers” who were stealing the country’s wealth. Their entry was met with huge opposition, with the then Conservative government considering housing them on a remote island, and not in the country. Eventually, 28,000 refugees were admitted, who settled mainly in Wembley and Leicester.

The total number of lives changed comes up to an approximate 204,000 - and this only includes those listed here. Hundreds of thousands more have not been counted. Today, people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cyprus, Iran, Afghanistan, Iran, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey, Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Colombia, the former Soviet Union and eastern European countries have sought and found asylum in the UK.

One initiative that aims to help get people’s stories heard is iamarefugee.net, which launched on 20 June 2016 for World Refugee Day. Its aim is to “remind the public that those who are given sanctuary give so much back in return [...] to create a positive and balanced debate on refugee issues”. On its website, you’ll find plaques of various striking hues, carrying the names of immigrants and their descendants. Some of them, when clicked, attach pictures to the names and stories of its name-bearer.

Some say that times have changed, that we cannot look back at history for answers. Yet we need to separate what we have come to believe through fear and the media’s deception, from the facts. International Business Times reports, “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that migrants accounted for 70% of the increase in Europe's workforce in the 10 years to 2014. European employers say they need more foreign workers to fill a range of jobs from highly-skilled positions to lower-paid menial positions that native Europeans no longer want to take.” Furthermore, “Researchers also say immigrants contribute more in taxes than they take in state benefits in the UK. A study by University College London found immigrants to Britain represented a net positive for the public accounts and brought with them qualifications that would have cost nearly £7bn pounds in education funding. Furthermore, immigrants were less likely to claim benefits than native Britons.” Real people’s lives are at stake; people whose identity extends much further than the fact that they are refugees. By turning them away, not only are we dismissing their humanity, we are making them our scapegoats, as the facts show.

Here are four takeaways: Remember where you came from. Get the facts straight. Seek people’s stories, and stay inspired. Know that in the face of fear, you have a choice: to respond with grace, or to act out; make a good one.

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