From the Kindertransport to the Illegal Migration Bill – a plea for kinder treatment of asylum seekers

21 Mar, 2023 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest

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By Alfie Futerman, René Cassin intern

Outside Liverpool Street Station, there is a statue of five children, to ‘celebrate’ the roughly 10,000 Jewish children of the Kindertransport who escaped pre-war Europe to the UK between 1938-39. During this period, the British press published numerous sympathetic stories detailing the arrival of chartered trains carrying Jewish children to their new life, safe from the growing threat of Nazism in Europe.

The story of the Kindertransport was largely forgotten with the onset of the war and only re-entered the public consciousness in the 1980s; the incredibly emotional 1988 episode of ‘That’s Life’ featuring Nicholas Winton and the dozens of children that he sponsored in their arrival being a prominent example. Clips from that show, in particular the entire audience standing to confirm they ‘owe their life to Nicholas Winton’, have become a near-universal part of secular British Holocaust education. This forms part of a self-congratulatory British interpretation of the Second World War and the Holocaust through the lens of the nation’s ‘finest hour’; the children of the Kindertransport rescued from the gas chambers by British generosity.

The Kindertransport is often cited as early evidence of a British ‘noble tradition’ of saving and protecting refugees. Its memory is invoked by politicians to draw a lineage from then through to the Syrian, Ukrainian, and Afghan schemes, up to the recently announced Illegal Migration Bill. However, the foundational myth of British government commitment to the protection of refugees does not stand up to scrutiny and is exposed to be just that; a myth. The most prevalent part of the mythology is that the Kindertransport was a scheme, created and funded by the government. The plaque dedicated to the Kindertransport unveiled in 1998 initially reflected this wilful misread of history and the national story, ‘in deep gratitude to the people and Parliament of the UK for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish children’. Upon the unveiling of the famous Für das Kind statue at Liverpool Street Station in 2003, the words ‘and Parliament’ were removed. This is a more accurate reflection of the British government’s role in the scheme, which was more of a sanctioning role ensuring children were 16 or under and were permitted entry ‘on condition that they would be emigrated when they reach[ed] 18.’

The Kindertransport is far better understood as the imperfect result of pressure from British-Jewish leaders and their allies on successive governments, whose policies actually blocked large-scale immigration. The Home Secretary at the time described an ‘underlying current of suspicion and anxiety about alien immigration on any big scale’. Part of this compromise saw over ten times as many Jewish refugees being refused entry as afforded access, large-scale internment on the Isle of Man, and the cancelling of all visa permits on the outbreak of war. Resultantly, ships carrying Jewish refugees leaving Europe for Britain or its Mandate in Palestine were turned back and even fired upon by the Royal Navy in May 1940.

Such apathy to the plight of European Jewry was not unique to Britain; the Evian Conference in July 1938 confirmed the broad international consensus that no one wanted to let in Jewish refugees. Admittedly, to the credit of the UK government of the time, it acted somewhat in contrast to this consensus in allowing the Kindertransport and eventually also permitting entry to 14,000 Jewish adult women as domestic servants. The stories of these women are unsurprisingly less celebrated in the national consciousness when compared to the Kindertransport as they say more about opportunism to fill vacant jobs than they do about genuine compassion supposedly represented by the statue at Liverpool Street.

The UK is right to celebrate its legacy of standing alone in welcoming any Jewish refugees and to commemorate those who contributed to saving the lives of the 10,000 children. This celebration must also note that this action was taken against governmental and popular will, a will and inaction that undoubtedly condemned thousands more.

This misinterpretation of history matters in the present. By framing the Kindertransport as a positive and proactive base upon which UK government policy toward refugees is built, there is an assumption that compassion is the core tenet of any such policy. When the British public believes that the government of the 1930s staged a daring rescue of Jewish children, and compassionately rehoused them, then we are more likely to believe claims from the Prime Minister and Home Secretary that current plans are ‘compassionate’, ‘humane’ and ‘support the world’s most vulnerable’. Adopting a more realistic view of the Kindertransport for what it was, a pyrrhic victory by the small and marginalised British Jewish community and its allies to rescue a fraction of Jews facing death, allows us to draw more accurate conclusions from the present.

The internment of Jewish people on the Isle of Man (read more about it here) portrayed by the right-wing press as potential ‘fifth column agents of Nazism’ cast suspicion on the very community most impacted by Nazism. Much like in the 1930s, our current print media utilises scaremongering tactics and faux national security concerns to generate a hostile environment for refugees in the UK. This relies upon generating a disconnect in the public consciousness from the real lived experiences of refugees and asylum seekers, with the emotional response becoming one of fear and suspicion. It is important to cut through the statistics, slogans, and their resultant compassion collapse by creating values-driven responses. Faith groups have always been a powerful voice in support of refugees precisely because common humanity and compassion are ingrained values within these communities. As a Jewish community our values of Gemilut Hasadim, the giving of loving-kindness, and our communal history of forced displacement and relocation must always hold us to account. We must advocate for a kinder treatment of asylum seekers within our country, and actively seek to redirect the narrative away from hostility and towards compassion.

What can you do? 

  • Come to our free online event Missing Migrant Children – lessons from the Kindertransport on Wednesday 29 March 2023 at 6.30pm
  • Write to your MP using JCORE’s template letter  
  • Sign JCORE’s open letter from the Jewish community  
  • Sign up your community or faith group to this PLEDGE to fight the anti-refugee laws  
  • Take part in Rene Cassin’s Pesach Action, stay up to date with our briefings and join out anti-hostility group. 

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