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Why prioritising women and children in the refugee crisis is a terrible idea

As the UK agrees to take in more Syrian refugees, there are calls to put "women and children first". But such prioritising won't help.

As the tide starts to turn in favour of helping refugees instead of building taller fences, we are starting to see calls to prioritise “women and children”. But this is a terrible mistake.

You might think that, as a feminist, I’d be fine with prioritising women.  But instead my reaction is quite the opposite. Partly my reaction, I admit, is an emotional one:  I find myself wondering at what age my now ten-year-old son would count as no longer worth saving (16? 18? 21?); and knowing that my partner, brother and father would already be deemed so.  But not all the reasons for rejecting this idea are so emotional.

The “women and children first” idea has deep roots in the idea that women are, like children, in special need of protection because they are unable to fend for themselves. The country that brought us Jessica Ennis-Hill, who just won her second world championship at the Heptathlon a year after giving birth, should know better. More generally, the dismissal of women’s capacities makes no sense in the modern world.

There is, however, an enlightened reason to pay special attention to the needs of women along with children. Women may face particularly difficult barriers to resettlement in a new country. In many countries, including some of those producing large numbers of refugees, women less likely to be able to acquire much in the way of language skills and employment experience, and this means they may be more in need of certain sorts of assistance than men.  But this is all the more reason not to separate them from their husbands, brothers and fathers.  If someone is in extra need of support, the very last thing you should do is deprive them of their existing support system.

To fully understand the desire to prioritise women and children among refugees, I suspect, we also need to acknowledge that, for some, this has its roots in suspicion of foreigners, especially Muslim ones. The willingness to make exceptions to this suspicion is better than the refusal to do so. But the idea that women and children are innocent and therefore exceptions is not only patronising to women, but appalling in its attitude toward men. To cast the men under this cloud of suspicion is to deny their humanity and their equal right to a life free from terrible persecution.

This attitude is especially shocking, it seems to me, in its casual willingness to destroy families – to say “we will help your wives and children, but leave you to see if you can make a life under Isis”.  When discussing domestic matters, politicians always strive to affirm their family values, and there is particular contempt reserved for fathers who abandon their families. Is it really right to demand such abandonment from fathers in circumstances more desperate than we can imagine?

And this brings me, finally, to Kindertransport. There are now calls for a new Kindertransport. This massive humanitarian effort is often thought of as the pinnacle of British compassion, and it would indeed be far better than the current situation were we to institute it for the crisis taking place now. But there is a horrific fact that is too often forgotten: nearly all the family members of the children saved died in the Holocaust.

We can do better than this today: it is not enough to only save the children, or even the children and the women. We must stop trying to choose the groups of refugees deserving enough of our help. There is a reason the Declaration of Human Rights uses the term “human”.  These are rights we all have.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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