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United Kingdom: Child Refugees

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the fall 2016 History’s Ghosts issue is: What lessons from history keep being forgotten? Below, Lucy Rodrick reflects on World War II-era refugee policies to argue that the U.K. must accept more Syrian child refugees today. Click for additional commentary on lessons from failed military intervention.

By Lucy Rodrick

Just one month before the Brexit referendum and his subsequent resignation, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the U.K. would accept more Syrian child refugees from within Europe. This marked a complete turnaround from his party’s vote in April against Lord Dubs’ immigration bill, which proposed taking in 3,000 unaccompanied children from predominantly Mediterranean countries. However, the country’s recent vote to leave the European Union and the advent of Theresa May as prime minister have cast doubt on when these children will be accepted in Great Britain, if at all.

Some of the most vocal supporters of Dubs’ bill were Jewish refugees who arrived in Britain during World War II on the Kindertransport—a government initiative that took 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany following the violent pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Eric Reich, the chairman of the Kindertransport-Association of Jewish Refugees, remains a leading voice in the campaign to make Britain a safe haven for children fleeing persecution in war-torn Syria. Once a child refugee himself, Reich urges the government to demonstrate the same humanitarian compassion to Syrian children that was once offered to him.

There has been immense objection to the historical comparison made between the plights of Kindertransportees and the Syrian refugee children. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson has not been alone in arguing, “the plight of the Syrian refugees is not on a par with Jews fleeing the Nazis.” But is such criticism necessary? Is it useful? Despite rendering the comparison invalid, Pearson continues to assert, “not all adults are like those selfless Kindertransport parents who dispatched their children with no expectation of seeing them again.”

It is commonplace in Britain to hear such warnings that if Britain lets in unaccompanied children, parents and relatives will shortly follow. In the face of such fear mongering, it is important to remember that the purpose of the proposal to take in unaccompanied children is that they are just that: unaccompanied. And often orphaned. Moreover, when did we begin shaming displaced families hoping to be reunited?

Instead of trying to compare the two examples of gross human suffering, if nothing else, we should seek to understand the Kindertransport as a precedent for British immigration policy toward those in desperate need. Additionally, the insufficiency of Britain’s policy toward European Jews during World War II should be recognized; it saved far too few. Only 70,000 out of almost 600,000 applicants were rescued. Upon arrival, 1,000 children were detained as enemy aliens in a camp on the Isle of Man. Indeed, the Kindertransport was only facilitated when private individuals and organizations, mostly Anglo-Jewish, agreed to foot the bill.

Serious obstacles stand in the way of productive discussion and policy-making to ease the plight of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children. As terrorism rages on in Europe, fear, xenophobia, and nativism are very much alive in the U.K. It is feared that a post-Brexit U.K. will become more isolationist in its immigration policy—and given Prime Minister May’s recent scrapping of the new Minister for Syrian Refugees position, such fears do not seem unjustified. In fact, a committee of MPs released a report in August criticizing the European response to the refugee crisis and arguing that the U.K. is unlikely to reach its target of resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

Two simple, logical cases can be made for taking Syrian children in response to the anti-immigration arguments behind the Brexit campaign: Children are not able to take jobs or deflate wages, and children are highly unlikely to already be radicalized. They should not be punished for those committing acts of terrorism on the continent, who may not even be from the same country as them, let alone the same community.

The Kindertransport policy saved lives. Children who might have otherwise died in Nazi Germany went on to build full, productive, and successful lives in the United Kingdom. Britain should remember this legacy as the country considers how to address the Syrian refugee crisis today. An exit from the EU should not mean an end to international cooperation. At a time when there are currently 95,000 unaccompanied Syrian children in Europe, Britain must not fall guilty of abandon. It must work with others in the international community to find a workable, humanitarian response.



Lucy Rodrick holds a Master’s degree in Modern European History from Cambridge University, where she specialized in the Holocaust and Holocaust memory. Her thesis looked at survivors and Jewish refugees living in post-war Britain.

[Photo courtesy of Eoghan Rice / Trócaire]

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