The Refugee Crisis: A test of our humanity


Many people assume that Great Britain was universally welcoming towards Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the 1930s but the reality was somewhat different.

Speaking in the House of Commons in March 1933 Conservative MP Edward Doran asked the Prime Minister if he would be taking any extra measures to prevent “alien Jews” from Germany entering Britain. Doran claimed that “Hundreds of thousands of Jews are now leaving Germany and scurrying from there to this country when other countries are closed to them… May I ask whether it is the declared policy of this country to allow aliens to come in from every country in the world while we have 3 million unemployed”?

The press was no better.

“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. The number of aliens entering the country through the back door is a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed”

Daily Mail 1938

Daily Mail August 1938

The parallels with attitudes in the 1930s towards Jewish refugees and the modern day are striking:

Daily Mail Aug 2015

Daily Mail August 2015

Dail Mail Army

Daily Mail July 2015

As Tony Kushner, Professor in the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations and History Department at the University of Southampton says, “The Daily Mail has been an anti-alien newspaper since the 1900s. There’s great continuity.”

Writing in the New Statesman, Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato said “As Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.”

Can we rightfully make a comparison between Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and modern day refugees?

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said:

“One third of the men, women and children who arrived by sea in Italy or Greece were from Syria, whose nationals are almost universally deemed to qualify for refugee status or other forms of protection. The second and third most common countries of origin are Afghanistan and Eritrea, whose nationals are also mostly considered to qualify for refugee status.”

“We must be clear: most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution,”

As Politico Magazine notes “conditions in the Middle East are reminiscent of the broader context in which the Holocaust occurred. Europe in the 1930s and 1940s witnessed a systemic breakdown of national borders and civil society; brutal ethnic cleansing and population transfers; and a refugee crisis that strained the world’s creativity and resources.”

Attitudes towards Jewish refugees softened in the UK after the events of Kristallnacht, the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938. The British government, after much debate, agreed to allow the entry into Great Britain of unaccompanied children ranging from infants up to the age of 17.

The rescue effort which became known as the Kindertransport resulted in the United Kingdom taking in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.


Last September Refugees who escaped Nazi Germany and found sanctuary in Britain via the Kindertransport called for the British government to allow more Syrian refugees into the country. Sir Eric Reich, chairman of Kindertransport: Association of Jewish Refugees told David Cameron: “I urge you to commit the United Kingdom to once again demonstrate its humanitarian compassion by providing a safe haven to the children fleeing persecution in war-torn Syria.

“Without the intervention and determination of many people who are of many faiths, I – along with some 10,000 others – would have perished. I strongly believe that we must not stand by while the oppressed need our help.


A card made by schoolchildren to welcome the refugees. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

In December 51 refugees arrived in Northern Ireland to a largely warm welcome. Given the scale of the crisis we can and must do more.

As Antonio Guterres said “Europe has a clear responsibility to help those seeking protection from war and persecution. To deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build”.

Holocaust memorial day

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