Posts Tagged Refugees
It’s been a funny old year. Not so much of the ha ha, either. Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably? I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.
Reasons to be Miserable:
Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass. As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA. As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan. I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.
According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless. The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe. Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.
I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that. As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail. Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said. They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella. And so on. All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament. How else could it possibly happen? If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.
The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’. I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational. We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it. My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended. Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.
This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition. I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms. In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.
On the other hand…
The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans did not. Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally. Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.
Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.
Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election. (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).
Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.
If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.
So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.
I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.
In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep. I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.
If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She stumbled, apologised, and began again. In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.
According to our Prime Minister,
if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
The examples she gives are of people who regard themselves as above the obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work, who identify themselves with ‘international elites’ rather than with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.’ She talks of ‘the spirit of citizenship’.
Prime Minister : You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Those of us who identify ourselves as citizens of the world do, indeed, ‘respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work’. But we see those bonds and obligations as extending beyond the people who live around us, work for us, buy the goods and services we sell.
As a citizen of the UK, I honour my commitments and responsibilities to the country of my birth, the country where I have spent most of my life, where I have worked, paid taxes, and raised a family. But I also believe that:
In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems.
And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen.
I spent some of my childhood years in a newly independent West African nation. My parents flew out to Ghana in 1960, with three children under four years old. My father taught Physics and Mathematics to undergraduates at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi. He wrote a textbook for use in schools, recognising that those imported from the UK not only assumed resources far beyond the means of Ghanaian schools, but also assumed cultural references which would make no sense to Ghanaian children. He went on to train teachers in the north of Nigeria. And in his retirement, after years doing the same at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), he set up an organisation to link retired educators with projects in developing countries, sending them out to work with local teachers to use their lifetimes of expertise where it was most needed, in countries such as Paraguay, Kosovo, Iraq, Liberia, India and Chad.
The country of my parents who instilled in me a sense of public service and of public servants everywhere who want to give something back.
So what was instilled in me by my parents was not only a sense of public service, but the belief that that does not stop at our coastline, that it’s not just ‘the people down the road’, but the people across the oceans who matter.
It’s not about ‘international elites’, it’s about refugees, about people who are persecuted because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, about people who starve because the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed and because their own and other governments do not have the will to act, about people… About people.
Global citizenship does not mean what Teresa May thinks (or at least says) it means.
But there’s another troubling undertone here.
‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere … the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere’
‘International elites’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who owe no loyalty to the countries in which they may live and work. I am not suggesting for a moment that Teresa May is deliberately echoing Adolf Hitler’s 1933 speech, any more than Amber Rudd’s proposal to require firms to list all of their foreign workers is consciously preparing the ground for yellow stars or their equivalent.
But the echoes are worrying. With the Brexit vote having been interpreted by the government primarily as a vote about immigration, and by racist bigots as a vote against foreigners of all kinds, with the plans to tighten even further the tests which would allow British businesses to employ people from overseas, and those which allow students to come from overseas to study here…
It seems that we are prepared to put into jeopardy our health services and the many other businesses and services which rely on overseas expertise, to put into jeopardy our economy, which gains so much from international students paying £20k a year in fees alone to study here, to put into jeopardy our research culture which thrives on the free movement of academics, all to reduce the net migration total.
Teresa May referred to the UK’s remarkable number of Nobel Laureates. But one of this year’s prize winners, Sir Fraser Stoddart, has reminded us that ‘recruiting from a wider pool and bringing in talent from abroad raises everyone’s standard’.
“When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they’re serious about science,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”
Sir Martin Rees, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, and the Astronomer Royal, warns:
“The UK scientific scene is now much stronger than it was [in the 1980s] – thanks in part of the strengthening of science on mainland Europe. But there is a serious risk, aggravated by the tone of Amber Rudd’s deplorable speech on Tuesday, that there will be a renewed surge of defections, weakening UK science and causing us to fail to recoup our investments over the last 20 years.”
Amber Rudd spoke of the resident labour market test, which determines whether an organisation can recruit outside the UK (and, at present, EU).
The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.
But it’s become a tick box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.
It’s not fair on companies doing the right thing. So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.
Most people hearing this will not know how onerous it already is to appoint someone from outside the UK/EU, how many hoops the employer will have to jump through to satisfy the requirements for a Tier 2 visa to be issued, and how many hoops the applicant will have to jump through. Amber Rudd knows this perfectly well, as do many in her audience. But none of that really matters – what it’s about is meeting this arbritrary net migration target, by whatever means.
She also tackled the issue of international students:
The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. … And foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.
Her first point is moot. An international student can apply to stay on after their studies are complete under a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa – if they have access to at least £50k investment funds to set up or run a UK business. Or, they may apply for a Tier 2 visa, if they have been offered a job by a licensed UK employer, and if they can rack up 70 points under the points based system (yes, we do have a points based system!), which requires them, amongst other things, to have English language qualifications at a suitable level, and sufficient funds in their personal bank account. And all overseas students have to meet English language proficiency requirements at a level set by their institution.
But important as it is to call her out on the inaccuracies in her statement, the really important thing is what underlies it. The assumption that students are flooding here, unable to speak the language, getting favourable treatment post-study, bringing their entire extended families with them – that they are a burden and a problem.
To quote Rudd:
try and stand up for a multiracial Britain and you are labelled part of the liberal elite; point out the £20 billion net contribution from immigrants over a decade and you are told you are not listening to the people; oppose hate crime and you are mocked for political correctness. It is easier to vilify foreigners in the new Britain than it is to espouse European values.
OK, not that Rudd. Her brother, in fact, who has founded an organisation called Open Britain, a place for those who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling and campaigning for Britain to be open and inclusive, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world.
For Teresa May and Amber Rudd and so many in the Tory Party (and elsewhere) EU migrants are a problem. Overseas workers and students are a problem. Refugees are a problem. Foreigners are a problem.
And the problem can be solved by ending free movement of EU citizens, if need be losing out on beneficial trade deals as a quid pro quo, by tightening up still further on the freedom of employers to bring in the skills and expertise they need to contribute to our economy and to our academic research, by reducing the numbers of students paying substantial fees and contributing to the local economy whilst acquiring skills and qualifications which might be useful both here and in their home country.
The problem can be solved by stating repeatedly that we are doing ‘everything we can’ (whilst doing nothing at all) to bring unaccompanied child refugees who have the right to come to Britain, out of the camp at Calais – due to be demolished shortly – and to safety with family here.
Meanwhile the children remain in the squalor and misery of the camps, prey to traffickers and abusers, desperate enough to risk and lose their lives in attempts to board lorries crossing the Channel. Every day they remain puts them at greater risk of harm, and increases their trauma. But refugees – even these children – are a problem, and therefore we stall and hedge and do nothing.
And whilst we make that arbitrary division between those who live and work here holding a British passport and those who live and work here holding EU or overseas passports, we are about to guarantee for Britons who have settled overseas permanently a “vote for life” in British general elections…
The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used in a way that perhaps feeds into Teresa May’s characterisation, of someone who is part of ‘a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens’”.
But that’s a distortion of what it means.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
A global or world citizen places their shared humanity above nationalistic or local identities. They recognise our interconnectedness, and that the problems and threats we face – climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples through war and famine – cannot be solved other than by nations working together and that our response is hindered rather than helped by borders and barriers. Global citizenship only comes into conflict with national and local identities, and with the obligations and responsibilities of national citizenship, if that nation demands of its citizens allegiance to values which are inhumane.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is about as cosmopolitan as anyone could be. His mother was English (daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps), his father Ghanaian. He was educated in Ghana and the UK, and taught in Germany, Ghana, South Africa and France as well as in the US. His family and that of his husband, Henry Finder, is scattered across four continents.
He defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’ asserting that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.”
The foreignness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers, these things are real enough, but Appiah suggests that intellectuals and leaders, on the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated their significance. He scrutinizes the treacly celebration of “diversity,” the hushed invocations of the “Other,” and the brow-furrowing talk of “difference.” In developing a cosmopolitanism for our times, he defends a vision of art and literature as a common human possession, distinguishes the global claims of cosmopolitanism from those of its fundamentalist enemies, and explores what we do, and do not, owe to strangers. This deeply humane account will make it harder for us to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest, between locals and moderns, between Us and Them.
That the language around immigration is becoming ever more toxic is recognised across the political spectrum. What might have been unsurprising in a UKIP manifesto is now mainstream Tory policy, and whilst many in Labour have been quick and vigorous in opposition, the Party’s Press Office inexplicably seemed to think that pointing out the government’s failure to meet its targets in reducing net migration was the best response.
More hopefully, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru were unequivocal:
The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe… and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.
This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in. We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question, or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’. Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23rd, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age. At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to enflame those same things.
It’s perilously easy to despair. But if we do, if we let the seemingly endless tide of sickening rhetoric and bad news overwhelm us and reduce us to silence and inaction, those who will suffer will be those who are already vulnerable, those who are already being told to ‘go home’, facing abuse and discrimination, those who are desperately trying to reach safety and encountering the impermeable indifference of bureaucracy, those who have made their lives and careers here and now feel unwelcome.
‘There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.’
We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East. But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.
In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.
In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse. CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.
1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe. Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.
Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West. And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.
In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.
In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance. The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.
In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population. On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and 1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.
In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable. Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire. In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.
Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.
2016 – more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
It goes on, and it always will. There will always be wars, and rumours of wars. There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change. There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism. People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark. And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open. Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope. But we must hang on to it, nonetheless.
Migration Matters Festival
Friday 24th June
To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett
The Scar Test, by Untold
“I came to England, scarred for life.”
Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker
Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.
Iftar with Open Kitchen
Food and conversation!
One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution. That’s the highest it’s ever been. We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else. Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.
Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants. Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.
These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,
One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries. The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against? An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force? Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them. In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale. In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.
Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?
The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe. Most do. In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.
But in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps. These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home. They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children. Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens. When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.
Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more. The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.
Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June
Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy. Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.
Magnus Wennman’s heartwrenching series of photos, “Where The Children Sleep,” , shows what happens to the children fleeing the conflict in Syria. He says that whilst the conflict and the crisis can be difficult for people to understand, “there is nothing hard to understand about how children need a safe place to sleep … They have lost some hope. It takes very much for a child to stop being a child and to stop having fun, even in really bad places.”
The recent debate about offering sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees was constantly and powerfully connected to the story of the Kindertransport. As the Nazi threat to the Jews of Europe became clear, a number of individuals, including Sir Nicholas Winton, negotiated and organised transport for children to places of safety. Their parents sent them onwards, with small suitcases or rucksacks packed with care and love, with the things they thought they’d need and the things that would remind them of home. Some parents managed to get away separately, and were subsequently reunited with their children. Most were too late, and perished.
The children who arrived in the UK were welcomed by a variety of organisations, Jewish and Quaker amongst others, and provided with foster homes. There was a brief window of opportunity – once war was declared, borders closed, and no more trains could leave Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia. Other trains would take many of the children left behind to other, terrible destinations. Some children got no further than France or the Netherlands, and many of those were deported from the homes they’d found there after those countries were occupied. Gerda-Sophie Klein was born in Vienna in 1935, and came to the Netherlands early in 1939. She survived until 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered, on her 9th birthday.
In the House of Commons, on 21 November 1938, Sir Samuel Hoare (then Home Secretary) told Members of Parliament:
I could not help thinking what a terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany. I saw this morning one of the representatives of the Quaker organisations, who told me that he had only arrived in England this morning from a visit to Germany and a visit to Holland. He inquired of the Jewish organisations in Germany what would be the attitude of the Jewish parents to a proposal of this kind, and he told me that the Jewish parents were almost unanimously in favour of facing this parting with their children and taking the risks of their children going to a foreign country, rather than keeping them with them to face the unknown dangers with which they are faced in Germany.
No one claims an exact equivalence between the circumstances in Nazi Europe and those we face now. But equally no one would doubt that in desperate circumstances children are the most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, most open to abuse.
It is often asked, below the line, what kind of parents would abandon their children to such a fate. Firstly, it is a huge assumption that these children have been abandoned. Many will be orphaned. Many will have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight. And some parents, faced with the desperate choice to save some but not all of the family will have chosen to send their children on to at least the chance of safety, as those parents did 80 years ago.
It’s also often claimed that the children are a sort of Trojan horse – if we allow our hearts to soften and give them sanctuary here, their parents and older siblings will then emerge from the shadows and demand to join them. Or that they are not in fact minors, just young-looking adults. It takes a particularly determined brand of cynicism to look at these children in such need and see only threat and deceit.
Most of us will see instead both vulnerability and potential. If we take them in we can both protect them from the dangers they currently face, and allow them to fulfil the potential they have, to contribute to the country and the community that gives them sanctuary.
The children of the Kindertransport gave back, richly. Four are Nobel prize laureates, others have built distinguished careers in all branches of the sciences and arts, in politics and business.
One of the Kinder, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, explicitly linked her philanthropic work to her history: ‘I need to justify the fact that my life was saved.’
We can’t know who amongst the children currently stranded in war zones or in refugee camps might prove to be an outstanding scientist, writer, composer, or entrepreneur. We can only know that whilst they live the half-life of the refugee camp, deprived of stability, education and adequate healthcare, they cannot be the people they have the potential to be.
The last words on this are those of the late Jo Cox. who would have been 42 years old today.
We all know that the vast majority of the terrified, friendless and profoundly vulnerable child refugees scattered across Europe tonight came from Syria.
We also know that as that conflict enters its sixth barbaric year that desperate Syrian families are being forced to make an impossible decision: stay and face starvation, rape, persecution and death or make a perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.
And who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing. The reality in which children are being killed on their way to school, where children as young as seven are being forcibly recruited to the front line and where one in three Syrian children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war.
These children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness and I know I personally would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hell-hole.
Migration Matters Festival – Wednesday 22 June
Howl Yuan – The Invisible Guest (6.00 pm and 7.00 pm): A drop-in, one on one performance followed by a full audience show, exploring how we are changed by our names, the places we live, the languages we use
Eclipse Theatre Company & Amaal Sharif – Rather: A Work in Progress (7.30 pm): One man’s journey to understanding humanity and the bonds that tie us together more than land, blood, language or creed
Rachel Munro-Fawcett – To Walk in Your Shoes: a documentary exploration of asylum, giving a voice to the voiceless
What is it they want, all these people?
What do we want? What do we hope for, for ourselves and for our children? We may hope for prosperity, for a nicer house in a nicer part of town, a better job, for our kids to be successful as well as happy. But if what we have was taken from us, what then?
We’d want to be safe. If our home, our street, our place of work, the school our children go to, the hospital they were born in and where we go if we’re sick, are bombsites and warzones, we’ll take our chances to go somewhere that perhaps just might be safe.
We’d want to be safe from violence and the constant threat of violence, because we believe in the wrong god or in no god, because we love the wrong people, because we support the wrong political movement, because we are the wrong race. We’d want to be safe from rape and the constant threat of rape, from abuse, from mutilation in the name of tradition. We’d want to be safe from the constant threat of starvation and disease, the desperate quest for enough food to just stay alive, the desperate quest for help when we or our children are sick.
But we’d want more than that.
We’d want to have a place where we can shut our door and hang up our hats, and sleep without fear, and be with the people we love. We’d want the chance to work, to use our skills to earn enough to provide for ourselves and the people we love, to prepare healthy meals, to buy new shoes for the children as they grow, to be warm enough in winter. We’d want the chance to learn, new languages and new skills, and we’d want our children to go to school and learn all that they need to make their way in the world, and to make friends and play.
We’d want to become part of a community. Paying our way, making a contribution, chatting to our neighbours, free of the threat that there will be a knock on the door early one morning and we’ll be sent away, back where we came from, or just away, to anywhere that’s not here.
And with all of that we’d want not to be told in the headlines of the newspapers that we’re a threat, that we’re terrorists, that we’re spongers, that we’re liars, that we’re cowards. We’d want not to see in the eyes of the people we meet that they wonder whether that’s true.
We’d want to be welcome.
Tuesday 21 June – Migration Matters Festival
British Red Cross Refugee Awareness Workshop (2.00 pm): find out about their work, and how you can get involved
Displace Yourself Theatre – Free to Stay (7.30 pm): An exploration of life without nationality, through physical theatre and projection, telling the stories of individuals with first-hand experience of statelessness
This year things feel different, in the run-up to Refugee Week. When I started blogging about refugees it felt like a neglected topic – even though organisations like Refugee Action and CARA and many others were working incredibly hard to support refugees and asylum seekers, and to raise awareness of the issues, they weren’t making headlines.
Since the photograph last September of that small boy, who came to stand for so many other children washed ashore as their flimsy, overcrowded boats sink in the Mediterranean, refugees have hardly been out of the headlines.
That’s a double edged sword, of course. Whilst many, many people have been stirred to do something, moved by looking into the eyes of grieving parents, frightened children and traumatised young men and recognising that they are like us, that they could be us, others have used the same images to stoke up hatred and suspicion.
The theme this year is ‘Welcome’. The heady days when refugees were greeted with smiling crowds and flowers faded pretty quickly but the people themselves are still with us, and more are coming, because they have no choice. Those who are here already can’t go home because home isn’t there any more for them, just as those others who are leaving now, grabbing what they can carry, handing their money over for a hazardous passage to an uncertain future, can’t just say, well, you know what, perhaps we’ll stay put after all.
We have to keep pressing our governments to make them welcome. We have to keep challenging the miserable, hateful lies that are told daily about them. We have to keep telling their stories so that more people make that leap into understanding and empathy.
Over the next week I’ll be trying to do some of that. As in previous years, I’ll post at least one piece each day. If you like what you read, feel free to reblog/share.
Tonight at the Migration Matters festival in Sheffield, Ice and Fire Theatre present their Asylum Monologues, based on ten years of gathering and disseminating testimonies of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. And they’ve a packed and varied programme throughout Refugee Week as well, including Ardi Mejzini’s one-man show based on his own experience as a refugee from Kosovo (Monday, 20.00). All events will take place at Theatre Delicatessen, 17 The Moor and are Pay What You Decide.