Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council and Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.
Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of World War Two, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution.
For the refugees from those seven decades who gathered in London this week to mark the anniversary, that history was very personal. This Treaty was the reason that they had been able to rebuild their lives in our country.
Having arrived across each of the last seven decades the refugees had many different stories of why they had made the journey to Britain – fleeing Hungary in the 1950s, apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, being expelled from Uganda in the 1970s.
Whether escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat, finding sanctuary from the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Syrian civil war, their experiences captured the story of the last century. Each had their experiences of arriving in a new country, and of learning how to settle. What the refugees shared was gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in Britain – and a desire to mark the anniversary by speaking up for why this should now be considered an important national tradition to protect in the future too.
So, what lessons might we take from hearing of the human meaning of this 70th anniversary?
The anniversary should remind us of the importance of protecting an asylum system that is humane, fair and effective so Britain can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it. For Gillian Slovo, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s on her 12th birthday, after her parents were persecuted over their leading role in opposing apartheid, “The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I didn’t have to worry when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa, there had been the constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time”.
That feeling of personal safety was felt as powerfully across the decades later by Aloysius Ssali, who had studied in Britain before being imprisoned and tortured back in Uganda because of his sexuality. He recalled the help and solidarity he had from LGBT people in the UK when securing his refugee status in 2010: “They told me ‘you can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you anymore.’ That was so important.”
That we have had seven decades of refugee protection in the UK shows that this international treaty commitment has been upheld by governments across party lines. Adopted at the UN in the final months of the Attlee post-war Labour government, the Convention went on to be ratified in the UK during Winston Churchill’s final term as premier. Conservative and Labour governments were responsible for giving sanctuary to those fleeing the Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s, refugees fleeing the wars arising from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in this century.
Across those decades, refugee protection has often been contested and controversial. Ted Heath’s courageous decision to give sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians in 1972 came at the height of the fierce arguments about immigration in the wake of the Powellite ‘Rivers of Blood’ argument.
Mukund Nathwani, who had been a 23-year-old teacher in Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the Asian population, is certain that decision saved his life. Arriving at Stansted airport, he says “What we thought was ‘we’ve got a new life’. People were welcoming to us – and we thought, well, we’ve come to the right place”.
Today, as in the 1970s and the 1990s, political arguments rage over asylum and refugee protection, with government proposals for asylum reform that rewrite and resile from some of the key obligations for convention signatories.
So, it is worth recalling that there have been many occasions when there has been public pressure on governments for Britain to do more – as with the Vietnamese boat people, or the Syrian resettlement scheme which arose from public dismay at the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.
Yet the principle of refugee protection does command broad public consent – new polling from ICM for the anniversary shows that six out of 10 people believe Britain’s tradition of refugee protection is something to be proud of.
Arguments about asylum can often see the ideas of control and compassion presented as polar opposites in political and media debates. But that is not how the public see it. The idea that we need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane, so the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those who need it, secures an overwhelmingly broad public consensus – with 70% in support and just 11% opposed.
The refugees who gathered this week told the story not only of their contributions to British society, and also of the importance of the relationships between the welcomers and the welcomed, between those coming to Britain and the people who helped them to make a new life as they settled here.
Hong Dam, a child when her family fled Vietnam for Hong Kong in an overcrowded fishing boat, is grateful to be among 10,000 Vietnamese boat people resettled in in Britain. It later transpired that there had been a considerable argument inside government over whether Britain would accept its UN resettlement quota.
Now living in Brighton, her abiding memory is of how much her teachers helped her. “I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English – just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgment. My teachers really shaped me into who I am today.”
This personal testimony reminds us of the lives that could be rebuilt even as the political arguments over immigration and asylum have raged.
Saad Maida, a 37-year-old doctor from Syria, now living in Leamington Spa and working for the NHS, secured his refugee status in 2014. “I’ve felt pride in being able to serve the public by working for the NHS. That has been accentuated by the pandemic – being able to be on the frontline. By being able to work and pay back to society, I feel I can complete my cycle of integration”.
George Szirtes, given sanctuary from Hungary as an eight-year-old after Soviet tanks rolled in to quash the 1956 revolution, makes a clear case: “Refugees are people without a home who need help. If you have the ability to help, I do think it’s a moral obligation to do so,” he says. Seven decades of refugee protection is something that we should take pride in. To do so, it is a principle we must uphold in the future too.