Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Refugees then and now

I started working on Belgian refugees in Britain in 2002, and part of the period between then and now also spawned a PhD on the subject (although I was never exempt from a hefty daytime job), but among the more intriguing responses to the topic of Belgian refugees then that still resonates largely today, is the reply in the House of Commons (July 1916) by John Whitehouse, Quaker and Liberal MP for Lanarkshire (1910-1918) on the issue of refugees and citizenship.

"Since the outbreak of war we have had the spectacle, almost unique in the history of this country, of a great portion of the population of another country coming to these shores in numbers unparalleled in history. I had hoped to hear some reference in the right hon. Gentleman's address to the position of the Belgian refugees in this country, the schemes that have been undertaken for the organisation of their work, and some information with regard to their numbers. I trust we may hope before the Debate concludes that some information on this subject will be given. It has been my privilege to have been closely associated with the arrangements for the reception of the refugees. I would lay down this principle:

I think the lessons of history prove to us that in the case of refugees coming to this country they have never remained permanently separated from the rest of the community. In each case they have become merged in the general national life. They have brought their own special skill, their own peculiar handicrafts and trades into the national life, and they have greatly added to the national wealth and character. 

These refugees in the past have always been looked upon at the moment as temporary, but nevertheless they have proved to be permanent. Following on these reflections, and considering the problem that confronts the right hon. Gentleman, I think it would be a great mistake if he attempted, and I do not think he is doing so, nor do I suggest that he is going to do so, to keep the refugees in compartments by themselves, living their own life. 

I think the easiest way to solve the problem of the refugees, and to get the greatest possible national benefit from their arrival in this country, is to treat them as fellow citizens and to receive them into our trade and industry without seeking to restrict them in any arbitrary way."

HC Deb 11 July 1916 vol 84 c.258-9

Completely unrelated, but still: In the EU referendum North Lanarkshire voted 62% Remain, South Lanarkshire 63%. However, Birmingham, where Whitehouse was born, voted 50.5% Leave.

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