Where should we look to find Britain’s ‘tradition of welcome’ of refugees?

Where should we look to find Britain’s ‘tradition of welcome’ of refugees?

In the outpouring of interest in refugees which followed the media’s surprised discovery of a European refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, Britain’s ‘tradition of welcome’ rapidly became a well-worn staple on all sides of the debate. Some used it to argue that Britain should once again open its borders to the world’s displaced people, while others deployed it as a smokescreen, implying that because  Britain did her bit in the past, now it is time for other nations to step up to the mark.  

Historians have long challenged  simplistic and often inaccurate depictions of Britain’s past. Many have critically unpicked what historian Tony Kushner has described as Britain’s ‘national habit of self-congratulation’. Looked at historically, it is clear that any actual tradition of allowing free entry of refugees rests with Britain’s practice in the nineteenth century – and particularly following the 1848 revolutions – of allowing revolutionaries and political exiles from Europe’s autocratic regimes unrestricted entry. But this was far from the case for the twentieth century. Leaving aside Britain’s fondness for the Belgians – 250,000 of whom came to Britain in the autumn of 1914 following the invasion of Germany, another 25,000 arriving in May 1940 – Britain’s reception of refugees after its passing of the 1905 Aliens Act was marked by caution.

When we look at the different groups seeking refuge in the United Kingdom across the past hundred years grudging acceptance rather than generosity was Britain’s guiding principle. The times when the British state did accept significant numbers of refugees – the Hungarians in 1956 and Vietnamese from 1979-83 being obvious cases in point –need to be understood within the very specific context of the Cold War. In both 1956 and 1979 Britain was strong-armed by the UN into accepting far more refugees than it originally offered; underpinning its action was a vested interest in being seen as a ‘good’ liberal democracy standing up against the tyrannies of communism. Similarly, the much-vaunted acceptance of 28,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972 begins to look rather different when we understand that these were UK Passport Holders who had been stripped of their automatic right of entry to Britain through the 1968 and 1971 immigration Acts. Asian Ugandans faced being rendered stateless after Idi Amin’s expulsion order of August 1972; again, it was fear of international condemnation which pushed Edward Heath’s government into accepting responsibility for them. This leaves us with refugees from Nazism of the 1930s as a candidate for the ‘tradition of welcome’ -  the refugee group par excellence. In fact the legal category of refugee did not exist in Britain in this period, so those fleeing the Reich were subject to the same controls as all other non-British subjects. Consequently the majority were only allowed entry on the strict understanding that they would never become a charge on the public purse, and many of them were only admitted with the expectation that they would re-emigrate to the US or Canada as soon as was humanly possible. Approximately 80,000 refugees were granted entry during this period. But there are an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 family and individual case files in the archives of Britain's main Jewish organisations dealing with refugees seeking to find refuge in the United Kingdom before the outbreak of the war.  

Not so much a proud tradition of welcome then, when we look at the details. Not then, and certainly not now for a country which, despite straitened times, remains the world’s fifth largest economy. But where does that bring us? In a vibrant democracy, such as Britain aspires to be, it is right that evidence-based research is used to challenge particular representations of the past. Particularly, but not exclusively, if these representations are then mobilised for pernicious political ends.

More complicated – and harder -- questions follow. Such as, if the British state occasionally, and typically unwillingly, acted to grant refuge to some, does this mean that ‘we’ have no history of welcoming refugees?

Here, I think it is helpful to draw a distinction between the British state and the inhabitants of the British Isles. For what is remarkable is the consistency with which people in Britain, with no particular connection to strangers in distress, came forward to both champion their cause politically, and to try to assist them materially.  

The past century is littered with people who were willing to be unpopular. Indeed, refugee history is particularly marked by individuals who made common cause with vulnerable foreigners against both their government and public opinion. We don’t normally associate Save the Children with radicalism, but its foundation by Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buston was a direct result of the failure of their campaign to have the blockade against the defeated German nation lifted at the end of the First World War. In May 1919 a few days before SCF's first public meeting, as historian Helen Jones reminds us 'it received a shower of publicity when Jebb was prosecuted under the DORA and fined £5 for distributing a handbill with a picture of a starving Austrian baby, for which she had not obtained the Censor's permission': 'From its inception SCF provoked controversy. It challenged government policy towards Germany at a time when anti-German feeling was still running high, and this is why Jebb was prosecuted'.

Similarly defiant was the response to the evacuation of four thousand Basque children in May 1937 as the tide of the war turned decisively against the Republicans by the left-wing National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Organised rapidly in the face of the impending attack on Bilbao, the Committee essentially presented the government with a fait accompli, and the Home Office was forced into allowing their entry. Perhaps more predictably the Quakers have been a consistent presence in the history of the defiant support of refugee causes, and by the outbreak of the Second World War were working across continental Europe not only running food depots and canteens and mother and baby homes, but also were also embedded in networks smuggling refugees out of Germany and were central to the Kindertransport scheme.

Alongside these specific acts, normally in the face of governmental indifference or hostility, were persistent and everyday acts of solidarity. We can think here, for example, of Worthing’s Famine Relief Committee  which was formed in 1944 to help relieve the food shortage amongst the civilian populations of occupied Europe when from 1944. In the context six years of conflict with the Germans, continuing rationing at home, and then in the aftermath of the liberation of Auschwitz and Belsen and growing public understanding of the scale of the atrocities perpetrated against Europe’s Jews, sympathy for German civilians was in short supply. Yet members of Worthing’s Committee collected clothing, food parcels and financial donations, pooled their ration coupons and spoke up publically about the need for international solidarity. On at least one occasion this resulted in a ‘stormy meeting’ with the local branch of the Housewife’s League. In later years the Committee went on to ‘twin’ with displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria, sending parcels and personal correspondence to individuals, as well as sponsoring some to come to Britain. In different ways, and in different contexts, we can trace a thread between the actions of Worthing’s concerned citizens and, for example, the activities of Chilean solidarity groups in the 1970s, and the churches and communities involved in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s.  

But for the most part, the engagement of Britons in the stories of refugee arrivals has been something far quieter and more apolitical. Something which became a noted feature of British life from at least the eighteenth century was its rich and diverse civil society. By the twentieth century, as Jose Harris has observed, the ideal good citizen was ‘not the paid public official, nor even the democratically elected local councillor, but the active, altruistic private person who freely donated his or her services to the community as a charitable volunteer’. For refugees, if the very first contact with Britain was, via the immigration official, with the state, very quickly refugees were typically passed into the hands of voluntary organisations. As a result, the reception and resettlement process would commonly bring them face to face with the ‘active citizen’. While in the inter-war period these volunteers were often co-nationals or co-religionists, after 1945 they were more likely to be a member of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) or Red Cross. These were often women, often middle-aged, acting not out of personal fervour for the political cause the refugees embodied, but out of a more general commitment to civic duty. The archives are full of accounts of their stoic cheerfulness and hard work: 

Hot drinks and refreshments on arrival… care of babies and young children; care of the old, the sick and the handicapped; first aid centres transport within the airport and from the airport to the reception centres; transport to hospitals for those needing hospital treatment; telephone communication; general welfare; the issue of warm clothing to those needing it. (1)

Over and above the work of the uniformed voluntary services, which we might expect to act, even if individual members weren’t personally committed, were the spontaneous acts of generosity. Each arrival of a new cohort of refugees has been accompanied by people opening their homes to strangers, offering English lessons, trying to organise employment, furnish homes and arrangement entertainments and cultural activities.

As I have suggested elsewhere, this has had its dangers, as enthusiasm can quickly turn to apathy, particularly if refugees fail to respond with appropriate expressions of gratitude. And,

in acknowledging the importance of individual and collective action in responding to refugee arrivals, this is not to set up an argument in which the ‘bad’ British state historically has against the wishes of ‘good’ citizens. After all, ‘our welcome’ of refugees over the last century has included  ‘Pro Patria’ denunciations of Jewish refugees, National Front demonstrations outside reception centres for Ugandan Asians, and inflammatory hoax letters being sent to householders informing them of compulsory requisitioning of their homes for Vietnamese refugees.

Yet, Britain does have a tradition of active support of refugees – in insisting that the circumstances of strangers in foreign countries should be part of our moral compass; in bringing refugees to Britain; in providing them with material and social support on arrival; and in fighting for their right to stay. If we can set the inaction of the British state today within a longer history of reluctant engagement with refugee crises, we can also set the work of grassroots organisations such as Right to Remain, Movement for Justice, and RefugeesWelcome within what can genuinely be described as a ‘tradition of welcome’.


TNA: HO289/95, D. R. Dewick, ‘Evacuation and Resettlement of Ugandan Asians’, n.d. Appendix 16: ‘Establishment of a refugee camp’, note by R A Wilkinson.

Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

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The Migration Museum, London

The Migration Museum, London