In 1852, Conservative MP Lord Malmesbury was able to express his confidence in “the pleasure and happiness every Englishman feels knowing his country affords the refugees a home and safety”.
This was perhaps a rosy view, but not an entirely inaccurate one. But such feelings did not last and Britain was soon to become much more hostile to refugees seeking a new home. How did this happen? Through processes that will strike us as all too recognisable to those employed today to demonise asylum seekers.
The populist, nationalistic press deliberately stirred resentment against refugees.
Immigration laws tightened after whipped-up xenophobia
The large-scale immigration of poor Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe from the 1880s onwards alarmed sections of the British society and political elite and fundamentally undermined Lord Malmesbury’s rosy and optimistic view.
Xenophobia, whipped up by the gutter press, festered and increased as international tension leading to WWI grew. At the outbreak of the war, the Aliens Registration Act was introduced, which obliged all foreign male adults to register with the authorities.
After the war a more stringent law was introduced in 1919, giving sweeping powers of deportation with no right of appeal.
Nazi sympathisers in the UK media and ruling class
From the very accession of the Nazi dictatorship (January 1933) there had been growing numbers fleeing Nazi persecution, political and racial. There was an obvious overlap in these categories, in that many political exiles were Jewish.
Hostility in Britain towards Germany had much abated by the 1930s; indeed the Nazi regime had many admirers, as witnessed in Julia Boyd’s excellent Travellers in the Third Reich. The Daily Mail in particular expressed open admiration of the Nazis and their British acolytes Oswald Moseley and his Black Shirts. Additionally, as Boyd describes, “Anti-Semitism was rife in the English upper classes.”
Hitler’s intent was to enact laws to institutionalise his race hatred of Jews. One consequence, more refugees, was anticipated in lurid form in the House of Commons when in March 1933 Tory MP E Doran warned “hundreds of thousands of Jews are now leaving Germany,” and as he put it, “scurrying [my italics] from there to this country”.
It’s what we would describe today as racist, dog-whistle politics.
Refugees’ skills: concern for domestic labour
At first the German refugees had usually been political activists on the left and as such were kept under surveillance by MI5 and Special Branch. MI5 spied on political refugees and had even swopped information with the Nazi regime on “suspects” in the early 1930s. Then, as the Nazis introduced ever more antisemitic restrictions, the number of refugees grew.
Many of those who fled to Britain often had relatives or friends here who could guarantee their maintenance; some were academics who already had contacts, others had business links, others had professional skills to offer.
A Home Office memo of 1936 acknowledged “that several thousand desirable, industrious, intelligent and acceptable persons had been added to the population”. Though equally, on the other hand, government concerns were expressed concerning the repercussions for the domestic labour market in the depression of the 1930s.
Kristallnacht: war – and refugees – inevitable
Not everyone shared the Home Office’s positive view of immigrants seeking employment. The Daily Express voiced anxiety that there were “too many foreign doctors, dentists and psychologists” and the Daily Herald reported that “Six Trades Unions warned that charity begins at home … and standards would be unable to be upheld with the influx of aliens” [my italics].
The Nazi takeover of Austria in Spring 1938 and the immediate persecution of Jews there caused consternation worldwide. This was followed in Autumn by the brutal pogroms of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) when Jews were murdered and attacked and their shops, businesses and synagogues were burned and ransacked.
After Kristallnacht, even ardent and naïve appeasers had to face the stark and brutal truth and acknowledge the inevitability of war with Germany and accept the immediate increase of new refugees.
Appalling internment camps claimed to offer ‘luxurious idleness”
Immediately after the outbreak of WWII (September 1939), all Germans, Austrians and Italians living in Britain were declared ‘enemy aliens’.
Tribunals were set up nationwide including in the North West – in Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, Huyton and on the Isle of Man. Some 70,000 ‘enemy aliens’ were called before tribunals with MI5 supplying information.
Enemy aliens were divided into three categories:
A – Threat to national security who were to be subjected to immediate internment.
B – Suspect and subject to certain restrictions.
C – Genuine refugees from Nazi oppression.
Even The Jewish Chronicle (May 1940) accepted the inevitability of internment when “the very life of the nation is at issue”. Internment camps were set up in the North West, mainly on the Isle of Man but also in Liverpool, Huyton, Manchester and Bury.
Crude complaints about the “generous” treatment of the refugees surfaced, in none too dissimilar manner as we hear and read today. Tory MP, Sir Annesley Somerville, asked why enemy aliens were being kept in internment camps in “luxurious idleness”. In fact conditions were appalling and criticised after official inspection by the International Red Cross.
Warth Mills, a derelict cotton mill in Bury, was used as an internment camp and described as “like something out of Dickens: broken glass, dust … broken machinery” by an inmate.
Disastrous dispersal of internees changed public attitudes
Internment was seen as providing only a transit arrangement and both Canada and Australia were persuaded to accept refugees. However, the pendulum of sympathy swung towards the refugees and against their transport overseas when the Arandora Star carrying internees to Canada was torpedoed in July 1940 with the loss of 800 people.
Public attitudes changed also with the scandal of the Dunera, which had sailed from Liverpool to Australia in July 1940 carrying 2,500 passengers, mainly internees, on a ship with a capacity of 1600. Beatings, thefts, extortion and destruction of documents by the crew, which was partly made up of paroled prisoners, were all reported and the food and accommodation were terrible.
When the ship arrived, the Australian doctor who inspected the arrivals was appalled by the shocking state of affairs. Evidence to the Home Office of looting, cheating and wanton destruction of documents was provided, and eventually three soldiers were court-martialled and senior officers were demoted. The Government sought to rectify the much criticised and resented dispersal programme and bring the internees back. But this led to another disaster.
The passenger ship MV Abosso was sunk by a German U-boat whilst returning internees from Australia in October 1942. One of those unfortunately killed was Ulrich Boschwitz who had been a passenger on the notorious Arandora Star. Boschwitz was a young writer who had been interned on the Isle of Man. With him sank his novel The Passenger, a harrowing tale of a Jewish businessman’s vain attempts to escape Germany after Kristallnacht. Miraculously, Boschwitz had posted a copy to his mother, which was only discovered decades later and republished.
The refugees’ champion – Eleanor Rathbone
The admittance of large numbers of refugees, especially during the critical months before the outbreak of the war, was due in no small measure to the incessant lobbying of pro-refugee groups.
Eleanor Rathbone was Liverpool born and bred and had become active in social work and poverty issues for women in Liverpool. She described herself as a ‘non-practising Christian’ and was elected to Parliament in 1929 as an Independent for the Combined Universities.
She was a Zionist sympathizer but believed in human rights for all in Palestine. Her own view of Jews was based on “the feeling of gratitude that we all owe to the Jewish people and the consequent desire to do reparations for the underserved insult they have suffered. All of us should understand what the world owes to Judaism.” In a letter to the Guardian (2 May 1933) she spelt out with withering accuracy the level of awareness of the atmosphere surrounding refugees:
“The little that appears (in the press) on the subject [of the plight of Jews] in most journals is insufficient to bring home to their readers the real significance of these events. The general public, jaded with the horrors and preoccupation with its own distress, only knows vaguely that the German government is persecuting the German Jews, feels sorry about it, and turns to its own affairs”.
She joined a delegation to inspect the internment camps. Huyton camp contained both pro and anti-Nazis, the ignorant authorities seeing no difference between different categories of ‘enemy aliens’. Predictably, there had been outbreaks of confrontations. Rathbone intervened and pro-Nazis were sent to another camp.
The wartime and post-war contribution of released internees
The majority of internees were released within a year to 18 months. They contributed to Britain’s survival in the war. Many became British citizens after 1946 and their skills added to Britain’s recovery.
Among those was Paul Hamann, who had been interned in Wrath Mills along with world famous artist Kurt Schwitters. Hamann had fled Germany with his Jewish wife and their daughter. Hamann was known for his busts of Aldous Huxley, Noel Coward and Clementine Churchill. He was released in 1941 and he and his artist wife became British citizens in 1950. Four of his life masks are in the National Portrait Gallery.
Again today: control of numbers outweighs humanitarian values
Like the 1930s, the present British government’s attitude to refugees is to regard the primary aim as controlling the numbers of immigrants rather than exercising humanitarian values. In the 1930s, there was no international human rights law to cover refugees; of course, this does not retrospectively excuse the harshness, nor, indeed, the placing of appeasement of the Nazis and fear of domestic hostility to refugees above other considerations.
But in 1951, Britain ratified the UN’s ‘Convention of the Status of Refugees’. The definition of refugees is those fleeing persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
The right to asylum is a human right and not the gift of any nation state.