BBC4 Radio podcasts, a Point of View
Michael Morpurgo - 20.5.2022
"The comparison is alarming between then and now, it tells us much about ourselves that I find, more than uncomfortable, I find it shaming, I would explain. Over the centuries, we on this island have often been a sanctuary for the invaded the oppressed and persecuted. We have been a safe haven to so many and they have helped to make us the people we are today, at our best a deeply humanitarian people. I fear we are not at our best now.
Perhaps this is because we forget all too easily. Freedom is precious to us as it is to any people, to any of our neighbours in Europe, but we have had it for so long that we are in grave danger taking it for granted or forgetting how our freedom was won. We have often had to defend it fiercely, most recently of course in World War Two. But even recent history all too soon becomes ancient history, then myth, then forgotten history. We've had the great good fortune to live protected by the Channel that has been our saviour on countless occasions. For a 1000 years or more since William the Conqueror and his Normans, no invader has occupied us, notwithstanding the efforts of William of Orange, oh yes and the little matter of the Battle of Fishguard in 1797.
Wind and tide have been on our side, as with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Good fortune has often played a part in guarding our liberty, but so has resolution and courage, as well as much needed friends and allies.
I'm like so many of us living here am only partly British my grandfather was Belgian, who came here to marry my grandmother before World War One. He was a great Belgian poet, their Rupert Brooke of the First World War. I knew the story as I was growing up of how he had spent much of that war looking after and raising funds for orphaned Belgian children. Belgian refugees had come over in their thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and we welcomed them in. It was 1914 we were at war, we were fighting hard, but it was not going well. The Germans had invaded Belgium, their country was a battlefield, towns and villages burning, civilians dying in large numbers, their little army and ours suffering dreadful casualties. We were retreating and losing.
For 240,000 Belgian refugees their only hope of saving themselves was to get on a boat across the Channel to the English coast, different times I know, but they did not have to wait weeks in war-torn Belgium for their visas to be processed. They came in their boats, we took them in, fed them, schooled their children, gave them homes to stay. Most would return home to Belgium, some more willingly than others, at the end of the war. But when they had needed help, Britain had welcomed them in with open arms. There were, I'm sure, security issues then and many in this country would have been understandably worried about this huge and sudden influx of refugees. I'm sure also they were a heavy financial burden on the state. We could ill afford such generosity, but they were our neighbours, fellow human beings in dire need. People and government knew the right thing to do, and did it.
It's salutary to compare this generosity of spirit, this solidarity with friends, this national act of kindness with how we have been and are responding today to the plight of Ukrainian refugees, who still are - as I write this - fleeing for their lives, seeking only safety, peace, a better life, food, warmth and a home from home.
That we are as a people every bit as kind and welcoming as our predecessors were in 1914 I have no doubt. In recent weeks we have seen an outpouring of offers to house refugees from Ukraine, a growing solidarity with their plight. Funds have been flowing in to support them. So many of us are doing what we can to help, because we feel we must, that it is right so to do. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees are desperate to come. Many now have, but thousands more are waiting, forced to languish - sometimes under threat of bombardments, separated from family and living in often wretched conditions for weeks on end - for visas to be arranged by us, for cheques to be made, for systems to work.
Our response, sadly, has been minimal by comparison with many of our fellow European countries, even allowing for the fact that many of these are closer geographically to Ukraine. And it is no accident but these are the countries that know from long and bitter historical experience, from family stories handed down of war and occupation, how it is to be a refugee, oppressed, homeless, grieving and in despair. But we too have seen how they are suffering, we know they need our help.
If this hesitance on our part, this reluctance was unique to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, we might put it down to an understandably overburdened, unprepared Home Office. We might, but in recent times our government has been accused of heartlessness when dealing with other refugees and asylum seekers, desperate to find refuge in this country.
The refugee problem, like climate change, like the pandemic, is a worldwide problem, in which we know we have to play our full part, share the responsibility. There are - we know - about 70 million refugees looking for a home, a place of safety, a figure that grows, as we have recently been reminded with every war, and with the increasingly severe effects of climate change also.
There are of course always reasons, and some have merit too, why we must try to prevent refugees from venturing out across that dangerous English Channel, crowded with tankers as it is, in unseaworthy rubber boats, it's to save lives, it's to stop the vile people trafficking racket. And of course every country has to have sensible and fair limits when it comes to caring for refugees and asylum seekers, but then there are the excuses: 'it's the fault of the French', who by the way look after many more refugees than we do, 'it's the fault of the refugees themselves who should take the legal route to the UK', which is nigh impossible of course. Anyway, 'they should have stopped and settled in the first safe country they arrived in'. We seem to seek any argument not to take them in.
What would have happened to those 240,000 Belgians in 1914 if we had not opened our arms to them. Last month, just a week before they were due to be challenged in court, the government was made to think again and to drop plans to force small boats filled with refugees and asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel back to France. Campaigners had argued the policy was inhumane, a risk to life. It is now proposed that asylum seekers deemed to have entered the UK unlawfully ought to be expelled to Rwanda. So now we expel them, banish them.
To me this smacks of other times, when we sent convicts to Australia, when in the 1940s we sent unwanted orphans to the far corners of the Empire. We exported are rubbish for years in much the same way, paying foreign governments in the Far East to take in our rubbish and plastic. Policies of out of sight, out of mind, the argument is always batted back.
Alright, so what solution do you offer to the refugee crisis? For Ukraine, there is the solution we all want: a Russian withdrawal and peace, allowing refugees to go back home and rebuild their country. For those so-called illegal immigrants, who risked their lives daily to come here, I have two suggestions: that we look after those we can as best we can now, treat them right. But we also look to a long term solution. We can and should at the very least restore our overseas aid, increase it even. Yes, it will have to be found from public money and I know there is endless need in this country, but I think we have to afford to help out those far less fortunate than ourselves and in doing so we can support those millions of people in need to create a viable environment in their own countries, where they can live a good life, so they won't want to leave in the first place. That would be a start. We have to think again."