Dissecting Britain’s ‘proud’ history of welcoming refugees

Priti Patel has repeatedly reiterated how welcoming the UK has historically been towards refugees. Yet, a journey through the UK’s refugee history reveals moments where genuine humanitarian assistance was required by those seeking sanctuary but was clouded by a divided British public and political resistance. A history that the Home Office seems set to continue with their new proposals.

This history shows recuring patterns not of ‘openness,’ but of a correlation between increasing numbers of asylum seekers and a tightening of UK immigration restrictions. Or often outright refusals of asylum claims; directly contradicting the UK’s obligations under international and humanitarian law.

During World War Two, Jewish refugees experienced tightened visa requirements to restrict their high influx. Jewish refugees encountered resistance due to their “Jewishness” and were expected to culturally assimilate as soon as they were accepted into the UK . Britain recounts of their acceptance of the 10,000 Kindertransport children, yet quietly brushes aside Chamberlin’s insistence that they should not financially burden the country. Neglected are the accounts of the trauma revisited by Jews in their imposed detainment by the government in refugee camps alongside their oppressors.

Many other refugee groups such as the Ugandans and Bosnians, fleeing genocide, also experienced political resistance through tightening laws and dispersal policies. Many groups dispersed throughout the country causing separation from familiar culture, language, and religion. This was undertaken as a political manoeuvre to gain public support after the out-cry of immigration populations being too high in certain areas. Both groups, as with many others, only received permission to seek asylum in the UK after mounting public and NGO pressure.

Iraqi and Afghani asylum seekers both received a total lack of political will to help and their asylum applications were consistently denied. With UK military presence in both countries making these actions were especially problematic. Both Iraqi and Afghani refugees encountered racial and cultural discrimination, denied rights, demonisation and continue to be treated with callous indifference.

The UK public have a history of divide and resistance when it comes to the care and acceptance of those seeking asylum. We supported Jewish men in the Kitchener camp, yet fears of spies and rising xenophobia spread discrimination and forced its closure. Again, we supported Ugandans whilst right-wing hate demonstrations spoke loudly of public anti-immigration feeling. We showed sympathy to the Vietnamese after reports of them being pushed-back and drowning at sea but became hostile towards them when they joined our communities. Afghan women are afraid of going out at night and Iraqis and Afghanis are subject to Islamophobia and violence at work, in schools and on the streets.

In 2015, the UK experienced widespread support to accept refugees, as the public and the media united in support for Syrian refugees – giving birth to the ‘Refugee Welcome’ campaign. This seemed to be a direct result of the traumatic and heart-breaking images of Aylan Kurdi who died at sea whilst his family sought refuge. The sight of his body washed up on Turkey’s shores appeared to shock the UK public into feeling the depths of their humanity as they came together to force the government into action and showed the power of a united public.

History shows mainstream media outlets played into the UK’s governments aversion to uphold their responsibilities under humanitarian law. Looking back through years of newspaper headlines and articles reveals a penchant of toxic far-right rhetoric fuelling hysteria, discrimination and creating fear.

Negative language creating imagery of floods, aliens, bombardment and people-pouring-in.

Devising an imagined need to protect our borders, health care, homes and a fear of them being taken or stolen – our culture destroyed.

Lost in these headlines are any facts and figures documenting how refugees support the UK economy, bring expertise, knowledge, and culture.

Lost in these headlines are the real people who are scared, vulnerable, exhausted, searching and calling upon us for a safe haven for their families from persecution, violence or war.

References and Other Sources:

Baker,C., 2017, Why were Bosniaks treated more favourably than today’s Muslim refugees? On differing narratives of identity, religion and security. LSE. Available from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/03/07/why-bosniaks-treated-more-favourably-than-todays-refugees/

ECRE, 2008, Five Years on Europe is Still Ignoring its refugees, ECRE. Available from: https://www.ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/ECRE-Five-years-on-Europe-still-ignoring-its-responsibilities-towards-Iraqi-Refugees_March-2008.pdf

Keely,S., 2021, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust. Reviews in History [Online]. Availablr from:https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/221

Morrison,L., 2004, Refugee Feature: Negative Media Coverage–the same old story. Media Wise. Available from: http://www.mediawise.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Lionel-Morrison-feature.pdf

Souter,J., 2014. The Uk Must Fully Recognise its Special Obligation towards Iraqi and Afghan Refugees. LSE. Avilable from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-uk-must-fully-recognise-its-special-obligations-towards-iraqi-and-afghan-refugees/

Quach, G., 2021, Vietnamese ‘Boat People’ Archive. George Quach [Online]. Available from: https://georginaquach.com/boat-people-archive/

Withnail,A., 2016, If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will? Independent [Online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/if-these-extraordinarily-powerful-images-dead-syrian-child-washed-beach-don-t-change-europe-s-attitude-refugees-what-will-10482757.html 

YouGov, 2021, YouGove Plc. Availible from: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/topic/Asylum