It can be difficult for those of us with comfortable middle class lives to understand what compels people to leave their homes and flee to other places. The answer is usually discrimination – whether that’s because of war and you’re the wrong tribe, or because of a characteristic that those around you deem wrong. Sometimes it’s because your very home is in danger.
By now we know that millions of people have fled war zones in the Middle East and Africa. A few thousand of those have sought to enter Britain, while Germany has opened its doors to a little under a million refugees.
Yesterday I publicly wondered what the British reaction was in the 1930s to people fleeing Nazi Germany. The answer came back – basically not great. One person tweeted that the reason for the kindertransport was that Britain had refused entry to the children’s parents. Another tweeted links to say that the press of the time complained that Britain did not have the resources to cope.
I was thinking the unveiling of the concentration camp horrors in 1945. I suspected a large number of people who were killed had been refused entry by the Allied powers. Millions of people dead, lots of whom would have been denied safety.
At this point in 2015, we not only have myriad wars, but also the effects of climate change and more effective mass transport systems. When people are being burnt or thrown off buildings because they’re gay, when women are ordered by courts to be raped, when people find their homes bombed to smithereens because they happened to be in the “wrong” place, it’s only natural that such people want to find a place of safety. Most won’t want to leave, but know they have to in order to survive. Most will want to return when they can.
I read that David Cameron has said this afternoon that, basically, Britain won’t help.
Reading about the British reactions in the 1930s, and seeing current British reactions – I’m ashamed of my country and the insular stance it seems to always take – although now seems to be worse than pre-war Britain. Is this the society we’ve become – only capable of looking out for ourselves? Are these the famed “British Values” that Cameron is promoting?
While not in the same league as those millions who have fled for their lives, my mother and her parents were forced to leave their home in India in 1947, and throw themselves on the hospitality of one of my great aunts in southern England. Within just three weeks, their whole lives had been turned upside down. From being one of the people to visit on the social circuit in North West India, my grandfather found himself no longer a leading judge but someone seeking whatever job he could get. When none of his legal qualifications were recognised, and despite speaking eight languages fluently, all he could get was a clerical job for the electricity board. I have the impression that the bulk of their wealth was left behind, never to be returned. My grandmother didn’t even know how to boil an egg. They weren’t refugees because Britain had identified them as British, and they had nowhere else to go. The architects and destroyers of their destiny, Britain accepted them grudgingly, even though they had served the empire loyally for years.
It’s very likely that, because of climate change, the wave of migration hitting Europe will only increase in the coming years. Yet our government is deciding to allow more carbon fuel extraction and is turning its back on renewable and sustainable energy production – thereby knowingly making climate change even worse.
Cameron has reportedly said that allowing a few thousand refugees into the country won’t solve the current crisis. Well, the current crisis, let alone any future one, won’t be solved by us closing our borders either. If being human means anything, it has to mean helping those in desperate need, those desperate enough to risk their lives and those of their children.
(Read here for more history on refugees in Europe since 1914.)