Thursday, 12 January 2017

Comment: Refugees: Then and Now

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 60 (Spring 2017)

Refugees: Then and Now - Merilyn Moos 

I want to briefly consider some comparisons between the refugees from Nazism in the 1930s with today’s refugees. First I want to touch on Government policy towards refugees in the 1930s and now. Although the British state welcomed neither the refugees from Nazism nor today’s refugees, the National Government under Baldwin, not a Government known for its liberal policies, admitted 10,000 children from the Kindertransport in a matter of months and somewhere between 40,000 -70,000 refugees altogether, many of whom arrived in the 12 months before the outbreak of war. The Home Secretary, Hoare, actually agreed to provide group, not individual, visas for the Kindertransports, which one can only wish had also been Government policy for the children in the Jungle. Of course, the numbers saved were not nearly enough.

Kindertransport memorial - Liverpool Street Station

The popular construction of the Kindertransport is now used to divert attention from how few the National Government accepted: about 1 in 10 of would-be refugees. The Kindertransport also provides this Government with ideological cover: while it only admits 500 children from the Jungle, it exhorts us about how the Kindertransport reveals how generous Britain has been towards refugees. Yet less than 4000 Syrian adult refugees have so far been accepted out of the meagre 20,000 over five years promised. Almost indistinguishable from UKIP, the Government justifies its failure to open its doors by arguing that unlike the 1930s, the refugees can go somewhere else.

 There are some similarities, for example the hostility by some towards refugees then and now. The Jews were going to take your jobs, as will today the refugees or European migrants. And though refugees from Nazism were not accused of being potential terrorists, the fact that tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Nazis were interned in the Isle of Man and elsewhere in 1940 reveals how far they were seen as a potential fifth column. (By the way, if you were suspected of being a communist, your fate was likely to

be being shipped to Canada or Australia.) Today, refugees are presented as potentially posing a threat to national security, more so in France or the US, but also here. The terms of ‘Jews’ or ‘Muslims’ are also both ideological constructions, creating a racist stereotype as well as turning the refugee into the ‘other’.
But I want to suggest a couple of differences. The dominant discourse, since the 1970s, has been multi-culturalism. Partly thanks to the organised opposition to racists from the 1970s onwards in the UK, it is generally safe for refugees and migrants (often indistinguishable despite what the Government tells us) to appear dressed in ways with which they are culturally comfortable.
Refugees often speak to their children in their original language: their second-generation child becomes bilingual. Schools recognise Eid. On the other hand, the refugees from Nazism were encouraged to  assimilate but that was also what they generally wanted for themselves and their children.                          
Another difference is that the earlier refugees generally wanted to settle here. There was generally nothing for them to go back to. But refugees today talk about wanting to go back home. Although I don’t want to underestimate the barbarism of the war in Syria, the devastation of Libya or the civil war in Somalia, no state organised ethnic cleansing of the same magnitude is taking place as under the Nazis. At least some members of the refugees’ families will probably survive.  With luck, there will be a ‘home’ to go back to.
So the sense of dislocation by the children of the refugees may be experienced differently. It is as yet unclear how far the children of refugees from Nazism’s sense of feeling both ‘outsiders’ in the country where they were born and little connection to the country where their parents were born is particular to them. The more family members survive, the greater the possibility of the reconstitution of a family, something evidently unlikely when the family were almost all murdered. My father, I was to discover, made real efforts to find who in his family – and amongst his comrades-had survived the war. He did find a few relatives but the closest was in Italy, the furthest in Brazil. He had never known any of them before he had fled and his attempts to rebuild a network- or reconstitute a family - through letters largely petered out. Modern technology: the email, Skype and Twitter can diminish the effect of geographical dislocation and make maintaining contact easier for the modern refugee. One hopes that the modern refugee family do not maintain the silence and emotional barriers towards their children that characterise so many families of Nazi refugees.

Image result for stand up to racism refugees welcome
We are witnessing a shift in the dominant discourse towards refugees. Racist influence is increasing. As in the 1930s, the hysteria of the Daily Mail and other media outlets and the increasing UKIP-lite talk of the Government towards the refugees is legitimating a hostility towards refugees and migrants more generally. Though one has to suspect public opinion polls, it seems only just over a half of people polled supported allowing in children from the jungle.  In a period of increasing economic insecurity and inequality, we need to oppose whenever and however possible all forms of racism.

Merilyn Moos

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