I never knew my paternal grandfather, who was apparently a bitter, angry right-wing journalist who thought the world was going to hell; although as this was the 1930s, he was pretty much right. Almost the only thing I remember being told is that in 1938 he and my grandmother took in an Austrian boy as part of a scheme in which 20,000 Jewish children were taken away from Hitler. (I only heard this story from my mum, as my father was too English to talk about his parents, and felt rather less uncomfortable in war-torn Beirut or Biafra than actually talking about his own emotions.) I don’t know what happened to the boy, except that he stayed and was apparently still living in England by the time I was told the story as a teenager.
Britain was reluctant to take in Jewish refugees at the time, as was America. Much of the moral impetus behind the 1951 UN Refugee Convention was collective guilt about the 1938 Evian conference, when the world refused to accept many Jews from Germany (except the nutty Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, who was generous to any refugee so long as they weren’t black). This made Hitler think, alas probably correctly, that no country cared about the Jews and he could do what he wanted.
The 1951 Refugee Convention is a product of 20th century thinking, and unworkable in a 21st century world of 7 billion people and smartphones, but today the Syrian situation in particular does call out to our collective humanity. Yet Britain seems reluctant to do anything, even when we are presented with hugely moving images like this one:
— Daniel Etter (@DanielEtterFoto) August 17, 2015
Part of the problem is that, after years of record immigration, many British people seem unwilling to accept any more. There is also a feeling that the rich benefit from migration, and that the poor pay the brunt. Refugees tend to be dumped in poorer areas such as east Kent rather than Highgate, while the wealthy and articulate get to display their virtue by condemning their compatriots for being xenophobic.
One way Britain might be willing to take more Syrians is through a voluntary Kindertransport scheme. That is, individuals can sign up to put up refugees in their house, or to help support them financially, to pay for any education and health insurance; maybe for one year or two. That way taxpayers would not need to support any Syrian refugees.
The first step might be to set up a website where people can offer spare rooms, and state whether they can also financially support the Syrians. Some may just be able to house them but can’t afford to support them, while others may have money to spare but no space. People could also list what sort of family structures they could accommodate, and whether they could foster children or whole families, as well as whether they have the support of a church or mosque.
The host could also be a guide to British culture, something no institution can really provide in the same way. That’s probably quite a lot to ask, but I know some older people who have spare rooms in their house and disposable income. That way the wealthy, articulate and high-status can – rightfully – bear the costs of helping the poor, rather than simply getting to parade their morality in public. Anyone with any suggestions can email me here.