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Book review: Aliens: The Chequered History of Britain’s Wartime Refugees by Paul Dowswell

Britain has a proud history of welcoming refugees. It also has a shameful history of hostility to refugees. Often exactly the same refugees at the same time. As with all real life and real history — as opposed to more transparently ideologically driven accounts — it is a complex story. Paul Dowswell’s new book, Aliens: A Chequered History of Britain’s Wartime Refugees, does an excellent job of recounting in a balanced way some aspects of British history that many would rather forget.

Parallels with contemporary reactions to refugees are unavoidable. Dowswell makes this explicit in his conclusion. But any reader will make the connection themselves as they read extracts from Daily Mail articles from the 1920s and 1930s conflating migrants with criminals and statements by prominent politicians that inflate the numbers of refugees and boldly state they all want to come to Britain.

The public, the press, the politicians

Depressingly, the difference then with now is sometimes that the prominent politicians were fringe figures on the backbenches. Today the Home Secretary herself can and does engage in this kind of fear mongering.

“The white slave traffic, the dope traffic, gambling dens, bogus clubs, smuggling and banknote forging are almost entirely controlled by aliens who hitherto have laughed at passport and registration restrictions,” wrote some journalist at the Daily Mail in 1929.

Criminality is “very closely linked” to the arrival of refugees, said Suella Braverman in 2023. “We see that there are many people coming here illegally who are then getting involved in drugs, who are getting involved in violent crime, who are getting involved in prostitution,” she went on.

Conservative MP Edward Doran claimed in 1933 that “hundreds of thousands of Jews are now leaving Germany and scurrying from there to this country.”

Home Secretary Stella Braverman claimed in 2023 that “There are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws. Let us be clear – they are coming here.” She doubled down the following day, claiming even more improbably that there were “likely billions more eager to come here if possible.”

There weren’t hundreds of thousands trying to flee and those that did flee weren’t all seeking to come to Britain. There aren’t 100 million — never mind “billions” — trying to flee and those that do flee aren’t all seeking to come to Britain.

Then as now the right wing press would alternate between lamenting the lack of labour and high wages and complaining that there were too many foreign workers and they were driving down wages. While you might be forgiven for observing that this confuses asylum with economic migration, the reality was that in the 1930s, before the advent of the Refugee Convention, many “bespoke” national schemes intended for those seeking asylum required the person concerned to apply for and get a job. One of the few routes available to Jews fleeing the Nazis was as a sponsored domestic worker. It did not matter what they had been in their previous lives; if they wanted to come here they’d need to skivvy. Those unable or unwilling just had to stay put. It was the same after the war with the European Voluntary Workers scheme.

As we’ve written here previously and repeatedly, this is why seemingly alluring “bespoke” schemes are no replacement for refugee rights and internationally agreed treaties.

On that subject, Dowswell includes a chapter on the lost opportunity of the Evian Conference of 1938. In the face of a massive and growing refugee crisis, world leaders gathered and… expressed sympathy but did nothing and agreed nothing. Not quite nothing, perhaps. As I briefly discuss in Refugee Law, they set up the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which then actually tightened the definition of a refugee to require certain specified reasons for fleeing and therefore an individual assessment of each claim.

Then as now refugees were castigated by some for their failure to stay and fight; fleeing supposedly shows insufficient love of and loyalty to one’s own country. No matter that resisting the Nazis was essentially suicidal, as is resisting the Taliban in Afghanistan, Assad’s forces in Syria or the mullahs in Iran. Lieutenant Colonel Slatter, stationed at a refugee camp near Liverpool, opined “I can respect no man who has no loyalty to his country, especially the country of his birth.”

Protest + press = no removal

One story really jumped out at me. In March 1939 a group of 13 Jewish arrivees from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia at Croydon airport. All but one were found not to possess the requisite visas or sponsors for entry. Immigration officials decided to refuse them entry, detain them and send them back. Convinced (correctly) they were being returned to their deaths, they began to scream and protest and throw themselves to the floor, writes Dowswell. Forced back onto the plane, they continued to protest and the pilot refused to take off. A photograph of two of the refugees being escorted, clearly against their will, is used as Dowswell’s front cover.

The press ran the photo and the story and the government’s plan to deport them by boat instead was eventually abandoned. One of those pictured was Oskar Goldberg. He survived the war. His parents, sisters and all their families did not.

Public opinion can be hostile, indifferent or generous. As the war drew to a close, the horrifying images and descriptions of the liberated concentration camps created what Dowswell describes as a “groundswell of public sympathy”. Generosity towards camp survivors became politically acceptable. Despite initial government reluctance, a scheme to resettle in the UK 1,000 child camp survivors was launched. But it found only 732 willing children.

The all-too-limited Dubs Scheme of 2016 was initially aimed at helping up to 3,000 child refugees. When the scheme closed in 2020, a total of 480 children had been assisted.

The volunteers receiving the children in 1945 were “shocked” to found they were nearly all male and “looked much older than their stated age”. Life in a concentration camp will do that to you, I guess. Just as a harsh life as a child refugee today might do something similar. Dowswell reports that the children rapidly “de-aged” once they were in a position of safety and security.

Was it reluctant politicians being forced by the public or was it a change of public opinion enabling willing politicians? The image of Alan Kurdi lying on a beach in 2015 was to my mind was very much the former; it led to massive expansion of the refugee resettlement by David Cameron’s government, which had previously been extremely hostile to Syrian refugees.

Internment and detention

Dowswell writes that all German and Austrian refugees were “labelled” as “enemy aliens” on the outbreak of war. All those who were not British subjects were aliens and any aliens from countries with which Britain was at war were enemy aliens. In legal terms, this was automatic and a matter of common law. What was not automatic was the decision to intern them alongside actual Nazi prisoners of war.

The Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, was reluctant to intern all enemy aliens, correctly considering it a disproportionate and unnecessary overreaction. Instead, a risk based approach was adopted based on individual assessment. A series of “fifth column” type press stories led the government to reverse its position. Universal internment was instituted in May 1940. Some 29,000 enemy aliens were rounded up.

Short of space to detain so many people, the British government sought to export them elsewhere. Again, the parallels with today are unavoidable. Parts of the Isle of Man were surrounded by barbed wire and turned into internment camps. Some refugees were sent to compliant countries further afield. Then it was to the colonies. There were tragic consequences. Now it will be to Rwanda.

The first ship of 1,600 internees bound for Canada, the Arandara Star was torpedoed. Half the crew, guards, prisoners and internees drowned. There were insufficient lifeboats and, anyway, no lifeboat drill had been carried out. Many of those who drowned had actually been living in Britain for years and some were even naturalised. Others were refugees. This was at a time when Britain was under siege and short of materiel and food. Boats and crew were incredibly valuable, even if foreign lives were considered cheap. As well as a tragedy, it was a totally pointless waste of precious resources.

The HMT Dunera set sail soon after, bound for Australia with 2,500 on board. This time the ship made it to the destination. But there were only 10 toilets on board and conditions rapidly became insanitary. Food was poor and fresh water in scant supply. The soldiers guarding the refugees plundered their possessions with sergeants and officers looking on. One refugee passenger was goaded to suicide when his family’s immigration papers were torn up in front of him. On arrival in Australia it was immediately clear something had gone desperately wrong. The commanding officer was court marshaled when it became evident how the refugees on board had been treated.

What had happened to these soldiers and officers to make them behave so? Was it anti-semitism? Suspicion and hatred of enemy aliens? Simple indiscipline? Similar stories of mistreatment of detainees emerged at the Brook House detention centre in 2017 and the inquiry into the abuse recently reported. There is always a danger that those enforcing state violence — and detention against one’s will is clearly inherently violent — get carried away. Strong safeguards are needed to try to mitigate the risks. But the present government is simultaneously expanding its use of detention and coercion and rolling back safeguards.

By the end of 1940 the internment policy was pretty much universally regarded as a disproportionate and unnecessary overreaction. In the meantime, though, many Jewish refugees had found themselves detained alongside their Nazi persecutors. They lost their jobs, their homes and some lost their lives. The policy was expensive, pointless and brutal.

Personally, I’m expecting exactly the same rapid reversal of the Rwanda policy, should it ever be put into action. But if it isn’t, it will always be held out as some sort of Holy Grail. If only the policy had been done properly, some people will say, then it would have solved all our problems.

Impact on refugees

Many refugees end up becoming permanent residents of their new host country, irrespective of their original intentions. 

Then as now, the harsh treatment of refugees was, excuse the pun, an alienating experience.

One particularly badly run and insanitary refugee camp led an inmate to comment that “many ceased to believe in the British spirit of humanity before which they had acclaimed” and another more succinctly said that their experience of internment was “hurtful”.

Dowswell reminds us that while the Kindertransport saved the lives of some Jewish children, they represent a tragedy. The parents who were left behind nearly all died and some of the children really struggled with their placements and new lives in Britain. One child, Martha, recounted later how she carried an “otherness” with her throughout her life. Worse, she was plagued by a feeling there was something wrong with her. She had herself been force-fed anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda before her escape and it left its mark on her.

The more uplifting chapters of Dowswell’s book examine the contribution refugees were able to make when they were permitted. Some fought incredibly bravely on land, in the air and at sea. Others filled vital support roles at home and behind the front lines. This is not to say that refugees should only be welcomed when they have something to offer. Asylum should never be transactional. But host countries would be crazy to prevent those refugees who are able from contributing what they can.

And the United Kingdom’s current refugee policy is certainly crazy. I’ve written elsewhere about the lack of integration strategy for refugees. It seems to be terrible social policy whichever way you look at it.

Aliens is both fascinating and accessible. The omission of full academic-style footnoting is a little frustrating at times but it does make the text easier to read. There’s also a lot more to the book than I’ve covered here; there are sections addressing the Basque children given refuge in 1937 following Guernica, internment during the First World War and the treatment of Polish refugees during and after the Second World War, for example. Aliens is plenty interesting in its own right and there is no need to draw laborious parallels to the present day. But it certainly adds an extra dimension if you do, as does Dowswell himself explicitly in his final chapter.

“Is there much,” he asks us, “between Admiral Barry Domville saying ‘Jewish ways are not our ways’ and Suella Braverman’s dismissal of refugees who ‘possess values which are at odds with our country’?”

There isn’t space for even a cigarette paper in my view.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.