Britain Has Never Been Welcoming to Refugees

Just look at how it treated them in World War Two.

by Daniel Sohege

18 March 2022

Ukrainian refugee woman hugging
UN Women Europe and Central Asia / Flickr

How many times do we hear the cry from the Conservative front bench that “Britain has always been a welcoming place for refugees”? Even now as it enacts policies that leave Ukrainian citizens in limbo, and denied safety and adequate protections even when they are allowed in, Tory ministers are quick to brag about how the UK has “resettled more refugees than any other European country”. 

While that fact might sound impressive, it does not give us the whole picture. Globally, resettlement – where refugees are provided with specifically approved routes by the government – accounts for only about 4% of asylum places. In terms of how many people it is actually granting asylum, the UK falls far behind other EU countries, ranking 18th out of 27, based on UNHCR figures

Indeed, the inadequacy of this government’s response to the mounting refugee crisis, not to mention the outright hostility of its immigration policy – particularly the measures laid out in its nationality and borders bill – is merely a continuation of the British state’s long, shameful legacy of mistreating and neglecting those seeking safety on its shores. 

A dismal response. 

Perhaps the most notable example of this is the state’s response to the huge number of refugees created during World War Two. It is generally accepted that, by the start of the war, the UK had taken around 70,000 refugees. While this might sound like a significant number, what this figure doesn’t show is that the government rejected an estimated 500,000 applications for asylum. What’s more, when you consider the fact that the war displaced approximately 60 million people, it becomes evident how woefully inadequate the UK’s handling of this truly unprecedented humanitarian crisis really was. 

This was all before the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which created the basis for an international refugee regime, ensuring that the rights of refugees were recognised internationally, rather than based on individual domestic legislation. At the time, international refugee law, and the commitments countries were expected to make to help those seeking refuge, were limited and ad-hoc, primarily dependent on individual states’ domestic immigration policies.

The UK’s system was particularly harsh. For example, in order to seek refuge in the country, people needed to meet specific financial requirements, one of which was having £50 in an overseas bank account – for context, this equates to slightly more than £3,600, at a time when Jews were barred from having money overseas by the Nazi regime. These same kinds of financial barriers exist today: those applying for visas to enter the country – as opposed to doing so via so-called irregular means, such as small boat channel crossings –  can be charged thousands of pounds to do so.  

And even for the people who did successfully make it to the UK during the war, their safety was far from guaranteed. The British government put around 15,000 asylum seekers into internment camps – a situation not dissimilar to current government policy, given the existence of camps like Napier Barracks and the Home Office’s plans for offshoring asylum seekers. 

One of the most celebrated examples of Britain “welcoming” refugees into the country is the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort of children from Nazi-controlled territory that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the second world war, which saw 10,000 children brought into the UK. 

What is often overlooked, however, is that in order for them to be brought in, children were separated from their parents, many of whom they never saw again. This, of course, was a wholly political choice by the government; a way to minimise the number of adults being given sanctuary, and the costs that came with doing so. Similar situations are playing out today: when people were fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban seized back control of the country, images of parents trying to get soldiers at Kabul airport to take their children because they were unable to secure visas to flee the country, were broadcast around the world.

Other cynical factors played into who was accepted into the country. Both after World War Two and throughout the stages of the Cold War, the government’s refugee intake was heavily centred around what people could offer the UK in terms of meeting the needs of specific industries. Such attitudes persist today, with immigration minister Kevin Foster claiming that Ukrainian refugees could apply for “seasonal workers permits”. 

The opposite of world-leading.

What’s more, despite the harsh treatment many refugees received at the hands of the British state in that post-war period, the government still managed to brag about its so-called humanitarian achievements on the world’s stage.

Speaking about Britain’s efforts in taking in Hungarian refugees during the 1956 revolution, the then secretary of state for foreign affairs, Selwyn Lloyd, said: “Perhaps our most important contribution has been to allow 11,500 refugees to enter this country without preliminary examination. This is a greater number than any other country except Austria has been able to take.”

Once again, the government boasted about contributing more than anyone else to the global humanitarian effort, while only taking a fraction of the roughly 200,000 refugees displaced from Hungary: in total, the UK took 20,990 refugees; the US took double that. But these figures fail to provide the whole story; with refugees being shuttled from one country to the next, at one stage, Austria hosted 170,000 Hungarian refugees before they were able to move elsewhere. The government’s priorities, then, seemed to be less about actually providing vital humanitarian aid, and more about looking like it was in order to shame other countries into accepting more refugees so that it would ultimately have to take less.

This abdication of responsibility persists well beyond this particular era. Just look at the cabinet notes relating to refugee movements from Vietnam in 1979: “In preparing for the forthcoming international meetings we would have to stand on our position that it was up to other members of the international community to do more.” 

Meanwhile, when Ugandan president Idi Amin gave the country’s 50,000 Ugandan Asians 90 days to leave the country in 1972, one of the UK government’s first responses – which thankfully was never implemented – was to evaluate whether any refugees arriving in Britain could be sent to the Falklands – again, we see a similar response playing out today, with the Home Office’s plans to offshore asylum seekers. While the UK did end up taking more Ugandan Asian refugees than other countries, the hostility towards them remained, with some local councils, including Leicester, posting adverts in the press trying to dissuade Ugandan refugees from settling there. 

Time to act.

Looking at this history, it is clear that hostility towards refugees is embedded within the very fabric of Britain. More than 600 years ago, William Shakespeare wrote his “Sir Thomas Moore speech”, defending those seeking refuge in the UK in the face of rising xenophobia – an argument that is just as relevant today. 

The British state has always tried to overstate its immigration contributions by weaponising impressive-sounding statistics: it did it in World War Two and it’s doing it again now with Ukraine. Sure, the government can throw around all the big numbers it wants, like the fact that we have 200,000 potential places for refugees, in reality, it has, so far, only accepted about 5,000. This is what we should be focussing on, rather than falling prey to the Tories’ propagation of a rose-tinted humanitarian past that never even existed. 

Indeed, instead of talking about what the UK has done for refugees – true or not – the government should be acting, opening its borders to the thousands of people seeking asylum from this war. Only then, will it be deserving of the benevolent reputation it has spent so long pretending to have.

Daniel Sohege is the director of Stand For All and a specialist in refugee law and protection.


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