In January 1939, the Home Office’s medical inspector sent the equivalent of an angry email. He had received the casework of a Polish Jewish child with cerebral palsy, known as FP, who had been granted an entry visa to Britain. Given that the murderously anti-Semitic Nazi Germany had obvious designs on Poland, the case might have seemed clear cut. But not to the medical inspector, who complained the child was a “physical defective who [would] never be able to support himself”. The organisation that had arranged the visa was to be told that it had “let down the Home Office”.
This story was uncovered by Becky Taylor and Kate Ferguson, the academic authors of Refugee History: The 1930s Crisis and Today, a report detailing the attitude of the British state during another decade convulsed by political extremism and persecution. “Time and again what strikes me in the archives is how often the word undesirable crops up,” Taylor said at a recent event in Parliament. “Undesirable for being poor, undesirable for being sick, undesirable for being Jewish.”
The phrase “Britain has a proud history of welcoming refugees” is a mantra used by both progressives (to argue for welcoming more) and conservatives (to distinguish between “real” refugees and migrants). Yet Taylor argues that this statement is misleading at best.
In the 1930s, British policymakers argued against state support for refugees, and those who did make it to the country did so thanks to the work of civil organisations and volunteers. This mentality continued even after the outbreak of World War II, a war today often framed as a clash between the forces of liberalism and tolerance versus intolerance at its most evil. “If public funds are used for the maintenance of these refugees, such a change of policy will give great strength to such anti-alien and anti-Jewish feeling as may be latent in this country,” concluded a War Cabinet report on 22 September 1939.
Of course, the fact Britain did not place human rights first in the 1930s is well-known to anyone familiar with appeasement. Yet what is chilling about the research by the Refugee History project is that Britain shirked its responsibilities not simply by building walls, but with the far stronger barricades of petty bureaucracy. According to the report, there were an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 family and individual case files showing efforts to bring refugees to Britain before World War II. Of these, an estimated 80,000 were successful. In other words, a success rate of just 16 per cent.
Brutality cloaked in box ticking was underlined by the case of the St Louis, a German ocean liner which set off from Hamburg in May 1939 with hundreds of Jewish refugees on board. It was heading for Cuba, a country for which the refugees had visas, but on arrival the authorities refused to let the boat dock.
The captain of the St Louis tried the United States and Canada, but was also refused. Returning to Europe, the St Louis sent the British authorities a message asking to be allowed to dock at Southampton.
“What did Britain do?” Taylor said. “They were very, very anxious to make sure the ship couldn’t dock.” The refugees were told that their applications would be considered if they went back to Hamburg first. “This is in June 1939,” Taylor says. “As I am sitting there in the archives I get physically stressed: ‘Oh my God, let them out.’ We know now a quarter of the passengers died at the hands of the Nazi regime.”
— St. Louis Manifest (@Stl_Manifest) June 6, 2017
The names and photos of those who died after being turned away have been chronicled by the US-based Twitter account St Louis Manifest, since January 2017, with the hashtag #NeverAgain. But what is clear cut when distilled down to 140 characters can seem nebulous to policymakers today. In 2016, two-thirds of initial applications for asylum in the UK were rejected. Of initial applications from Afghanistan, a country embroiled in a war that the UK has been involved in since 2001, 65 per cent were rejected. As for applicants from Iraq, a country which the UK invaded and which has been plagued by the Islamic State, 88 per cent were rejected.
I was at the event because I work on a blog which collects Syrian stories. My Syrian friend, who came to the UK before the war as an international student, is, by the dismal standards of Europe’s response to refugees, one of the lucky ones. We hear stories about Syrians trapped in squalid camps in Greece, or stranded in Libya, or taken advantage of in Bulgaria.
Also speaking alongside Taylor in the glittering parliamentary meeting room was Alf Dubs, one of those 16 per cent who did make it into Britain in the 1930s, in his case on the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia. I last met Dubs, 85, in 2016, in the Calais “Jungle”, where he was listening to the testimony of unaccompanied children the French and British authorities would rather did not exist. That year he and his parliamentary allies succeeded in passing the Dubs Amendment, which forced the UK government to take in child refugees. He hoped for 3,000 children to be resettled – in fact, the government stopped the scheme in February 2017 after taking in 350 children. It blamed “capacity”.
For campaigners, the fight against bureaucracy continues. Help Refugees, a charity operating in Calais, challenged the government in court over the Dubs Amendment (it lost but is now appealing). As for Dubs, he urges people to approach their local authorities. “If they’re doing a lot, pat them on the back,” he said. “If they’re not, ask them why not.”