Waves, Floods, and Tears: Welcoming Refugees in Context

Sometimes, familiarity has a way of masking small differences. Everyday trivia has a way of distracting us from the complexity and immediacy of events that happen at a level of abstraction just beyond our own experience. Julian Jackson has said as much in lectures on Occupied France: one’s history can be dominated by tooth-ache or a lost cat, even as the world falls to pieces around you.

For the last 6 years I’ve been living in Putney, in the London Borough of Wandsworth. Obviously, this is a place replete with reminders of the past, situated in the grand sprawl of London, that old, complicated, messy amalgam of trade, Empire and industry. When I walk to the tube, I pass St Mary’s Church on Putney Bridge, the site of England’s last genuinely revolutionary moment, the Putney Debates.

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St Mary’s church in Putney, surrounded by busy London life (taken by me, on the walk to the tube station)

When I’m on the number 37 bus back from playing rugby, I pass a series of names that invoke another legacy from a similar period: ‘Huguenot Place’, ‘the Huguenot Rendezvous Café’, and so on. This swirling legacy of past crises leapt back into my mind recently, when thinking about the heritage of today’s refugee crisis.

This legacy is far from hidden, even in my immediate surroundings. It goes beyond the names of cafes and plaques posted on churches. It’s right there on the front of the Wandsworth Council building. The coat of arms used by the London Borough of Wandsworth bears a striking memento of previous crises. At the centre of the shield is a band of tears, representing the tears of the stricken Huguenot refugees welcomed into Wandsworth in the late 17th century.


That wave of immigration helped to transform the fortunes of a town on the edge of London, creating new industries and growth that would pull it closer to the city and increase its political importance. As the Council’s own history states:

“From the late 1500s, the village of Wandsworth gave refuge to Protestant craftsmen fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Dutch metal workers were followed by French Huguenots in the late 1600s. Their dyeing, bleaching, silk weaving, calico printing, hat and wig making and market gardens made Wandsworth famous. Many Huguenots became rich, successful and established members of the local community.”[1]

There is an important reminder here of agency. Too often, we are prone to think of people made desperate by war, famine or grinding poverty, as passive victims denuded of their own capacity. Helping alleviate that condition is a humanitarian imperative. When countries welcome those so humbled, however, it is not simply a moral positive. It is also, as stated clearly by Romano Prodi a few days ago, a moment which only intensifies the ordinary positives of migration for host countries:

“Mrs Merkel’s position was not just a message of EU cohesion, but was also an intelligent proposal for the German economy because Syrian immigrants are appropriate to the German needs – the shrinking of population and the need for skills – 40% of the Syrians are graduates.”[2]

This consideration of positives alongside the simple humanitarian facts is not some divergence from the ideological purity of humanistic concern, it is a recognition of the potential of the mass of humanity forced from their homes. It recognises the array of people huddled on boats, what binds them and what distinguishes them. That sense of definitions can be important, as it is often the first recourse of those who would speak against the needs of refugees. Decrying ‘false refugees’, is a way of ratcheting up narratives that increase the passive, receptive, demanding nature of those beggared by circumstance.

“So, at UNHCR we say ‘refugees and migrants’ when referring to movements of people by sea or in other circumstances where we think both groups may be present […] We say ‘refugees’ when we mean people fleeing war or persecution across an international border. And we say ‘migrants’ when we mean people moving for reasons not included in the legal definition of a refugee.”[3]

This also recalls previous moments of crisis, which operate necessarily in dialogue with the current crisis. In particular, I was interviewed recently about the relevance of refugee and migrant crises at the end of the Second World War, when the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) reckoned with the aftermath of total warfare. As many as 6,795,000 UN citizens were under UNRAA’s care in September 1945, with 762 camps & relief centres for DPs & refugees in Western Europe in 1947. That happened on our doorstep, unlike the vast camps of Syrian refugees which stretch out in Jordan, like Zaataari. In descriptions of the crisis at the end of war, we can see echoes today:

“‘Flotsam and jetsam! Women who had lost husbands and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children; families who had lost vast farms and estates, shops, distilleries, factories, flour-mills, mansions. There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label attached to them. They had somehow got detached from their mothers, or their mothers had died and been buried by other displaced persons somewhere along the wayside.’”[4]

That crisis produced its own problems. How to tell if a child found alone in Silesia was German, Czech or Polish? How can international organisations hope to give these children a chance to find an ordinary life? These questions were addressed by those that intervened, and those that tried to help. This is at the heart of the problem created by refugee crises. The clash between a system which encourages globalised connections and movements of capital and labour, as it places conditions and exclusions on individual people. This disjuncture of porous borders and selective filtering challenges definitions of humanity in law, except by using conditions such as citizenship. Hannah Arendt is quoted by Tara Zahra, when discussing the plight of children displaced by the Second World War:

“The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of human beings as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human”.[5]

This clash between people and states meant that the end of the war was obviously not the end of conflict, nor of tension in the middle of Europe. The lines that were drawn helped feed the Cold War, and a political competition that produced refugees caught in the gears of machines that spun out international brinksmanship. This is well discussed in Ned Richardson-Little’s excellent blog post looking at the totemic Berlin Wall in the context of the current crisis: ‘Of Walls and Victims: Berlin Refugees Then and Now’. The poignancy of these crises is not the conflicts that created the crises, but the people at the heart of them.

The legacy of European Empires (and their disintegration) also produced profound crises and huge numbers of refugees. The Vietnam War, all but a continuation of the French defeat in the Indochinese War, forced many to flee, some seeking refuge in Hong Kong and thereby in Britain. The story of their integration mirrors the quote above from the Wandsworth council, with ordinary people seeking a space to rebuild their lives, not simply consume. (This Channel 4 video contextualises the Vietnamese story well).

Likewise, the shameful expulsion of Asians from Uganda was both partly an outcome of British imperial settlement policies, and the anti-imperial rhetoric of Amin’s bloody dictatorship. Reflections on the period highlight a positive legacy, despite protests at the time, and concerns about its impact:

“There were many objections to the arrival of the Ugandan Asians in the UK – Leicester council even took out newspaper advertisements warning them not to come to the city seeking jobs and homes. But their re-settlement came to be viewed as a success story for British immigration and in 1991 President Yoweri Museveni invited the expelled community to “return home” to help rebuild the economy.”[6]

When discussing intervention, political rhetoric focusses on past failures, with Kosovo presenting a moment in which intervention was inadvisably delayed, until the moral imperative overtook political reluctance. Likewise, the arrival of Kosovan refugees is now viewed as a moment of moral positivity. Again, however, it is important not to assume these waves were accepted willingly or without question – casting the past as some flat landscape of moral purity. Caution was urged by MPs like Conservative Roger Hale of Thanet North, who worried about “bogus” refugees:

“They are economic migrants from Albania who see Britain as a soft touch.”[7]

Here again, the importance of definitions as stressed by the UNHCR is made paramount, with definitions the recourse of the recalcitrant. The mixing of people cannot cancel out the urgency of human need. In all these moments of crisis, concern and reluctance existed. The texture of the past is smoothed by senescence, yet in its study we reveal its wrinkles.

Humanitarian crises are messy, not easy. The way we talk about them matters, as does the way we think about them. Waves and floods of refugees and migrants are little more than groups of people laid low by events beyond their control. Britain’s role in the world is a huge, knotty issue that invokes far more than a response to one crisis (no matter how protracted or polyvalent). Yet, our response to this crisis invokes that historical role just as much as it promises to define our future. The narratives of nations can be built upon small stories just as much as the individual: for tooth-ache read refugee, for lost cat read scandal. Britain has responded to these crises in the past, and these have marked important points in our national narrative. Yet we cannot highlight positive intervention in the face of complicity in the creation of these crises. Lifting our heads from the familiar and addressing the world around us is a challenge. Yet, in that act, we can look to assuage the floods of tears as others have done before us. Let us all ensure that refugees are welcomed.

[1] ‘Refugees from Europe’, Wandsworth Borough Council Website. http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/info/200064/local_history_and_heritage/123/story_of_wandsworth/7

[2] D. Boffey, ‘Cameron’s moral failure over refugees ‘will cost him Europe negotiation’’, The Guardian, 5 September 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/05/cameron-moral-failure-refugees-europe

[3] ‘UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?’, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Website, 27 August 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/55df0e556.html

[4] Quoted in T. Judt, Post-war, p.23

[5] Quoted in T. Zahra, ‘Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in Postwar Europe’, The Journal of Modern History, 81 (March 2009): 45–86

[6] ‘On This Day: 1972, Expelled Ugandans Arrive in UK’, BBC Website. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/18/newsid_2522000/2522627.stm

[7] ‘UK prepares for more Kosovo refugees’, BBC News, 31 March 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/308586.stm

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