Blogs From the archive

The Spectator on Britain’s treatment of refugees

30 January 2014

2:51 PM

30 January 2014

2:51 PM

The British government has said it will allow in some of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees. The Home Office hasn’t specified how many will be admitted but says it will probably be in the hundreds. The Syrian civil war has created 2.4 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people, and looking through the archive, you get the sense that some of The Spectator’s former writers might have thought Britain could have offered more this time.

The government’s attitude towards Jewish refugees in 1944 was ‘niggardly, bureaucratic, evasive and insincere’, according to the diplomat Harold Nicolson. We’ve historically been ‘proud to succour the oppressed and to defend the weak. We were glad to feel that those who could escape from the claws of foreign despots might find in this country, not asylum merely, but an opportunity to make a profitable and respected living.’ There were an estimated 140,000 refugees in Britain in 1944, and Nicolson estimated we would be left with 40,000 after the war, figures he said that suggested that ‘from our vast granary of tolerance and kindness we should accord to them a bushel of generosity; that we should give them full rights of British citizenship; and that we, who have been granted such favours, who have earned such wide renown should share some at least of our fortune with the unfortunate.’

His argument echoed a piece from 1939 in which Dr G.F McCleary argued that the many of the people seeking asylum in Britain were highly skilled workers who would enrich the culture and the economy. He pointed out that when the Protestant Huguenots were facing religious persecution in France, 50,000 of them came to England. It was a very successful act of generosity, partly because many Huguenots went on to become successful silk weavers, economists, soldiers and artists.

‘To imagine that the refugees are carriers, so to speak, of germs of unemployment is to misconceive the position,’ he wrote. ‘Our ancestors fortunately held no such mistaken views about the Huguenots.’ 


Again, in the 1960s, large numbers East African Asians sought refuge here. The Spectator argued that Britain must let them in:

‘Historically, Britain has, to her great credit, always opened her doors to victims of persecution abroad. To shut them now, to refugees holding valid UK passports, and in breach of a solemn undertaking given only five years ago, would be a most shameful scandal.’ 

The editorial acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy to assimilate more than 200,000 refugees, but said some of those difficulties would be overcome if a moratorium were placed on economic immigration until the refugees had been absorbed:

‘This country has a tradition of opening its doors to victims of persecution: it does not, happily, have a tradition of importing cheap labour. At the present time we can afford to allow one of these two categories of immigrant in, but not both. It is surely not possible to doubt what our choice should be.’ 

Immigration has a tendency to present a dilemma between statesmanship and political expediency. In 1968, the Labour minister Richard Crossman supported his government’s immigration act, restricting Commonwealth citizens’ right of entry. He explained that though it was an ‘appalling violation of our deepest principles’, he was ‘an MP for a constituency in the Midlands, where racialism is a powerful force’. Andrew Kenny, who grew up in South Africa, remembered that incident as he recalled ‘the greatest political shock’ of his life when he came to England in 1972:

‘I believed that my fellow white South Africans were uniquely racist. A few months after my arrival, Idi Amin announced that he was going to expel all the Asians from Uganda. This startled me since it was quite contrary to my ideas about liberated black Africa. But what devastated me was the reaction of ordinary white British people, especially white workers, to the arrival of these frightened and unhappy brown people in England. There was massive hostility, a wave of racist hysteria worse than anything I had ever experienced in South Africa. It shook me to the core.’

As a nation, we may be proud of accepting more than 20,000 refugees from Hungary after the failed uprising in 1956, but we ought to have done more, Peter Kemp argued twenty years later: ‘Apart from its romance and heroism, the Hungarian revolution was the greatest, perhaps the last, chance for the West to halt the progress of Soviet imperialism. The West, apart from noises of sympathy and encouragement, did nothing.’

But we have an even less glorious record with Poland, according to Timothy Garton Ash. He argued in 1982 that by signing the Yalta agreement, Britain had delivered Poland into Russia’s hands. He described the misery of people trying to get out of Poland, 120 to a room, malnutrition, exhaustion, complexions like putty.

‘Poland’s wartime ally, the country which took almost 16,000 Hungarian refugees from Austria in 1956-57 (four thousand more than the United States), famous refuge of the oppressed — Britain has risen to her now customary heights of selflessness and hospitality by accepting the grand total of one Polish refugee from the Austrian government in 1981. One.’ 

And what about what happens when they get here? Roy Kerridge’s 1987 piece about the lives of Ukrainian exiles in Bradford is worth reading in full.

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Show comments
  • Patricia

    For the moment, these refugees may well be the most vulnerable but how long before their fit and able-bodied relatives join them ? I

  • Bonkim

    The east African Asians had a British connection.

    The Syrian refugee issue would not have arisen if the US and Britain had taken Assad and his fascist henchmen out at the beginning of the ongoing genocide.

  • andy_gill

    I’m all in favour of assisting the refugees in most need of help. However, that can be done without bringing them to the UK.

    In fact, if past experience is anything to go by, a number of those we take will end up trying to kill us. So if we must take some refugees, let us take Christians, who do not have an ideology of jihad.

  • Agrippina

    ‘…it wouldn’t be easy to assimilate more than 200,000 refugees, but said some of those difficulties would be overcome if a moratorium were placed on economic immigration until the refugees had been absorbed’

    ‘This country has a tradition of opening its doors to victims of persecution: it does not, happily, have a tradition of importing cheap labour. At the present time we can afford to allow one of these two categories of immigrant in, but not both’.

    This article acknowledges that you have to have a moratorium in order to ensure integration and that economic immigration should be halted in that pursuit.

    Please explain how, when we cannot control the EU economic immigrants from flooding in, we are to strike the balance as discussed above.

    There are so many ghettos here that any immigrant from anywhere land, can join up with their fellow countrymen and feel no need to learn the language and integrate. Ergo we do not want anymore immigrants at all, we are the most densely populated country in the EU.

    Syria specifically, UN has managed to persuade 18 countries to accept refs, but not Saudi, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman et al. The best way for these people to try and recover from their trauma & rebuild their lives (ask a psychiatrist) would be to place them in a similar culture, religion, language and climate, aside from the fact that they are oil rich countries that can easily afford to assimilate their fellow muslims.

  • Newcombe

    Let us get things into perspective. More immigrants came here under Blair than all immigrants in the previous thousand years combined. Not only that, more immigrants came here then in a week than the total of the entire Ugandan exodus!

    Labour, in just a few years, managed to change the face of this country forever. And to think that there are people out there who want to give that lot a second chance.

    • Shazza

      Yup. It took only 13 years to turn a solvent, first world country into a near bankrupt, third world place – country implies social cohesion, patriotism, shared history and culture; place says it all.

  • David Kay

    im not interested in how many Syrian refugees we let in, it could be a million for all i care, make it 2 million, just so long as not 1 of them is a muslim

  • Aarash UK

    The article is complete nonsense and it shows Spectator has been always wrong about the immigration. In this competitive world, you should seek to absorb the best of best not the vulnerable and refugees. National interests are not lying in charitable activities but in productive policies. British immigration policies at least since 1980 has been discouraging the best and encouraging the worst. Maybe Hungarian and French refugees in 200 years ago were useful for British society but what benefit the refugees who came here after 1980 have had for the UK?

    One of the biggest problem in British society is that many people do not know much about immigration system and media never try to correct this wrong view. There are variety of immigration categories with different implications and requirements. At one side, we have highly skilled and skilled workers such as investors, entrepreneurs and high level employees. These categories cannot claim any benefit, they pay high taxes and they are 100% benefit for the society. Many of them are wanted in many other countries.

    On the other hands we have refugees. Most of them are liar. Dont look at Syria. There are many refugees from other countries which are at peace. Many of these refugees have very good living in their own country and they came here only to get British Passport and then claim benefit. I myself as an immigrant know many of them. Most of them did not have any problem in their home country and they get refugee status with help of some liars and very loose asylum law in the UK. Even Balir in his book admitted the fact that most of the Asylum Seekers are not genuine and even Home Office confirmed this idea. These people can claim benefit from the very first day. Even a British citizen should prove that he has lived in the UK for at least 3 years to be eligible for Home university fee, but refugees can enjoy lower fees from the first day.
    The immigration policy is very foolish and crazy in such situation.
    Coalition has tightened the rules for the productive group from the
    first day in power and been so hostile to them but on contrary has done
    almost nothing to tackle the vast abuse among the asylum seekers.
    I am sorry but if British people are proud of their silly treatments of
    some liars in the name of Human Right I should let them now that as a
    result of this insane belief, UK becomes the home to worst and least
    productive immigrants and at the same time countries like Canada and
    Australia have absorbed the best talented ones. At the same time,
    Australia encourages the talented migrants and limits the liar (you read
    Asylum Seekers).
    If this article is reflecting the general opinion of Britons, it is now wonder why UK is losing the best talented migrants to its ex colonies.

    • Simon Morgan

      Aarash – I hope you won’t mind but I have posted a large part of this on a Daily Telegraph blog here in Australia (Tim Blair’s blog).

      The Labor government here dismantled very effective border controls in 2007. Since then 50,000 so-called asylum-seekers have arrived here by boat.

      Everyone (at least, most sensible people ) knew that these people were not genuine refugees.

      Our new government, which is a Liberal/National Coalition (like Tory/Liberal over in the UK), has finally closed the floodgates. But the Left is screaming ‘foul’ every chance it gets.

      The Left here is much happier to stick to policies that led to thousands of people drowning, and costing Australia many billions of dollars. Why? – it’s mainly because they hate the new government, and because it’s politcally correct (despite the drownings).

      So I can assure you it is far from true to say we have absorbed the ‘most talented’ immigrants here. We’ve absorbed many of your liars and cheats.

      Maybe Canada and NZ have been more sensible. But if the Left got anywhere them, then all hope is lost.

      • Aarash UK

        Cant agree more. Socialism is a cancer that should be prevented by all means. Robin Hoodist ideas of taxing the rich, junk humanitarian ideas, etc. they are destroying the western society. It happened to me many times when I walked in the city streets and saw statute of great Britons such as Wellington, I told to myself what would they say if they saw these days?

    • Simon Morgan

      BTW -the Left here is pretty much the same as the Left in the UK. We have ‘our’ ABC, equivalent to your BBC. And we have the Guardian.

      Neither of these organizations will miss any opportunity to try and besmirch the new government.

      Only recently, a Somalian asylum seeker, disgruntled because he had failed to get into Australia, accused the Royal Australian Navy of torturing him.

      ‘Our’ ABC took the allegations seriously -more seriously than any other channel, and joined the UNHCR in demanding a thorough investigation.

      And so on, and so forth.

  • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

    I think we should not bring in refugees from Syria.

    Being a fair minded person iIwill change my mind if it is made illegal to claim that Islam is a religion of peace.

  • Daniel Maris

    If we had put a stop to mass immigration we would have more room for genuine refugee immigration.

    But it is rather odd to argue that it’s moral to cherry pick the best and most productive of the world’s refugees (as most of these well groomed commentators opine), rather than say those in the most abject misery. Trying to have your ethical cake and eat it is always a rather nauseating spectacle.

  • edlancey

    Say what you like about Idi Amin but…

  • sarahsmith232

    This country is a mess because of immigration. The issue for the Left is all so simple, those that are ‘on the side of the angels’ push the doors open as wide as they can get them. Those that oppose that are on the side of the sub-human. The reason why this issue exists for them is such simple terms is because they have zero contact with the real world and honestly, truly believe that 80% of people in this country are mentally retarded and repulsive. The reason why they believe this is because they are Oxbridge educated old world, unreconstructed class snobs, know nothing version of.
    Why aren’t there people out there doing something to make them aware of this? How can Blunket defend their immigration policies on the ground that they were ‘on the side of the angels’ and have zero idea of what it is that that shows about him? They exist in an elitist Oxbridge contained bubble and can’t understand very much because of it. Somebody please do something to get through to them.