Debating the refugee crisis of 1938

Parliament is in recess, an opportunity to reflect on the first stages in the Lords of the Immigration Bill. Brian Paddick and I tabled the majority of amendments from opponents of the Bill which most of us would frankly just like to see thrown out.

It doesn’t need legislation for the Government to agree to give refuge to 3000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have fled conflict and made it to Europe – obviously. Equally obviously, if Parliament is considering legislation on immigration, Parliamentarians will use the opportunity to put pressure on the Government.

So it was last week in the Lords, when we reached the last day of the committee stage. So it was in 1938 and 1939 in debates so closely mirroring the call Tim Farron has been making in the Commons. No commentary needed (except perhaps to note Eleanor Rathbone styled herself Ms):

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL … There is a common assumption underlying this debate, which is shared by all those except perhaps the inhabitants of the countries from which refugees come, and that is that these refugees are a common responsibility of every civilised nation, and that each country has to play its part, according to its economic resources and according to its opportunities for offering temporary asylum or permanent refuge, in providing the means of life for these helpless and persecuted people.

The question surely that is before our minds first and foremost this afternoon, and is naturally one that confronts every member of the British Legislature is: Is this country really making its rightful contribution? Are we doing our share in the common effort to provide these victims of intolerance with a fresh start?

… this is an opportunity and not a question of simple charity. At a time such as this, when exclusive nationalism and fanatical intolerance flourish in so many parts of the world, it is surely a privilege to show that we at least are not suffering from any relapse into tribal mentality and that we remain to-day, as we have always been in the past, tolerant of opinions that differ from our own and sensitive to sufferings and injustice outside the boundaries of this country and outside the boundaries of the British Commonwealth. We can show this most plainly by opening wider our own doors.

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY…I am thinking rather, first of all, of the children….. I do not see at present that they have any future in their own country.

Ms RATHBONE: Since the beginning of July only between 6,000 and 7,000 German refugees have been allowed to enter this country, of whom nearly one-half were children. We know that the regulations under which they are permitted to enter are such that it is mainly only the relatively well-to-do refugees who are able to get in because only these can obtain the financial guarantees demanded. We, unfortunately, accepted the fatal principle adopted at the Evian Conference that not a penny was to be spent from public funds and that everything done to assist refugees must be done by voluntary enterprise. There is not an expert on the refugee question who does not recognise that that is equivalent to saying, “We are very sorry for all the people who are in danger of being drowned by this flood, and we will do our best to rescue them, but, mind, we must use nothing but teacups to bale out the flood….
I appeal to him to [the Minister to] do something to speed up the mechanism and to relax these regulations which are making it impossible for voluntary organisations to bring over more than this dribble of refugees because they make it necessary in every case, not merely to provide the cost of transport and maintenance, but the cost of eventual migration and settlement overseas. Cannot we risk a few thousand pounds rather than abandon these people to the terrible fate that may possibly await them? I feel that in this small matter we may appeal with some hope of success for the Government to adopt a more farsighted and generous policy than heretofore.

And in response to a question about “aliens coming into this country … the exact conditions and guarantees under which they will be admitted”,

Mr. WEDGWOOD BENN: In the interests of the good name of this country, will the hon. Gentleman do his best to discourage questions such as this?

In March the Lords will vote – overwhelmingly – that the Government should agree to take 3000 of these vulnerable children. We will give our MPs and MPs from across the political spectrum another chance to put pressure on the Prime Minister, saying, as the country did almost 80 years ago, that we cannot sit on our hands. But I keep hoping he will pre-empt our vote and have taken that decision before then.

* Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and the Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities.

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  • I am so glad that Sally Hamwee has highlighted how the Conservative government of the late 30’s was behaving in much the same way as the present one. Too little too late. There has been a lot of self-delusional and retrospective praise about our great humanitarian record in welcoming refugees in the past. Sadly it’s not borne out by the facts. Robert Winder in his excellent chronicle of 2000 years of immigration to this country “Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain” shows how at each stage we have been reluctant to welcome immigrants including refugees although have perhaps done a rather better job of absorbing them once they’re here.
    Tens of thousands died because the Kindertransport scheme was so restricted. Poles were pretty unwelcome after World War II and East African Asians in the 70’s when life was becoming pretty frightening especially in Uganda. These are just two more examples and occurred under Labour rather than Conservative governments.
    Of course behind every Conservative government with a refugee crisis stand our charming red tops. A few months ago Meral Ece Hussein circulated a piece from the Daily Mail of 1938 stirring up hostility to Jewish refugees and showed it alongside a rather similar piece in late 2015.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Feb '16 - 4:39pm

    This was, of course, before the United Nations was created, before the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees and before Israel was a state and enacted a Law of Return.
    The Anschluss was in 1938. Overwhelming military force was positioned by Nazi Germany on the border and entered Austria.
    The film “The Sound of Music” depicts an Austrian patriot who had served his country in World War 1 refusing to serve the Nazis and fleeing, with his second wife and seven children to the border with Switzerland. This is presented as a happy ending, but it predates the 1951 convention.
    A factual investigation shows that they transitted Switzerland. On entry to the USA they were honest with immigration officials and were refused. They tried again, saying that they only wanted temporary admission, were admitted and became overstayers. They still needed to make a living in a USA which was economically depressed.
    1938 was also the year in which a British Prime Minister shamefully gave away territory the UK did not control. In the process Czechoslovakia was deprived of its border defences with Germany.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Feb '16 - 11:33pm

    Reportedly the Tsar of all the Russias was offered asylum, but the offer was withdrawn.
    He was executed on the order of Lenin, with his family.

  • suzanne fletcher 19th Feb '16 - 6:39pm

    tragic that although some facts and figures have changed, underlying attitudes of those with the power to make a difference have not.
    even more tragic of course is that people are still needing to flee from their own country. We cannot bring about world peace overnight, but our country could make a big difference to 3,000 children very quickly indeed.

  • Simon Banks 20th Feb '16 - 4:36pm

    At this time the Daily Mail was campaigning against the “flood of stateless Germans entering the country.” They were of course stateless because Hitler had withdrawn German citizenship from Jews.

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