The Kindertransport And Syrian Resettlement: British Refugee Policy In 1938 And Today

First published on New Left Project, 5 January 2015

‘Our long tradition of giving that help and sanctuary, and of providing refuge for the most desperate, is a testimony to what kind of country Britain is and wants to be. That is why we should stand together in Parliament to support that tradition this afternoon.’ Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, 29th January 2014

‘Today an opportunity is offered to the British nation to take its proper stand among the nations of the world to protect a minority.’ David Logan, M.P., 21st November 1938

Two speeches in the House of Commons, seventy-five years apart, express the same aspiration to an idea of Britain as welcoming and compassionate, a refuge for those fleeing terror and persecution around the world. The sentiments expressed by Yvette Cooper and others a year ago in response to the Syrian crisis bear remarkable resemblance to those conveyed by members of parliament in 1938 in a debate prompted by the violence wreaked against Jews across Germany on Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’). Horror at the atrocities and a desire for justice are palpable on both occasions. On the basis of the transcripts alone, Britain is indeed painted as a compassionate nation, ready to do all in its power to help the world’s most vulnerable.

Statue dedicated to the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street Station, London.                         Judith Vonberg

The 1938 debate resulted in the Kindertransport policy, through which 10,000 Jewish children and thousands more adults were given refuge in Britain. In contrast, just a few hundred Syrians have been offered refuge in the UK as a result of the 2014 debate. A year later, only around 100 have actually arrived.

In this article, I will use these two examples as case studies to explore how immigration policy is embedded in an ongoing struggle over British national identity. This struggle centres on the tension between the idealised and often contested notion of ‘British values’ and competing pressures to exclude and discriminate against asylum seekers. In both the Jewish and Syrian crises, British politicians and campaigners sought to engage with ideas of national identity in order to gain support for a more open immigration policy. Indeed, very similar conceptions of British values were invoked in both cases – justice, equality and compassion – values that were, at least in part, honoured by both government and the British public in 1938 but have failed to capture broad support among politicians and the general public today. The success of this strategy as regards Jewish refugees and its contrasting failure in the Syrian crisis, in which policy has ceded to the prevailing anti-immigration mood, make these two cases ideal for studying the relationship between immigration policy and ideas about British national identity. There are of course also limitations to this comparison and these will be addressed later.

The Kindertransport took place between 2 December 1938 and 1 September 1939. During those months, numerous transports filled with Jewish children left Nazi-occupied Europe for Britain. Representatives from British charities were dispatched to Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to select the children and organize their departure. Indeed, charities and advocacy groups such as the British Jewish Refugee Committee (BJRC) were key players not only in lobbying for the policy but also in implementing it. After arriving in Britain most refugees went to live with British families, who had responded to an appeal for foster homes issued on the BBC Home Service by Conservative Home Secretary Samuel Hoare just four days after the commons debate. Over 500 families offered help in the following days and soon found themselves host to a Jewish child refugee.

These children were expected to live in Britain only temporarily and return to their own countries after the war or when they turned 18. The British agencies who organized the operation guaranteed every child £50 to finance his or her eventual re-emigration. Yet several thousand never returned. Many served in the British armed forces and nursing professions during the war and remained in Britain after 1945 to live and work.

The speed and apparent efficiency of the scheme is astounding, especially in comparison with the dismal rate of Syrian refugee resettlement since the policy was announced nearly a year ago.[1] Yet closer inspection reveals that the Kindertransport was plagued by difficulties and failings.

The Jewish children brought to Britain, as well as adult refugees, were granted only temporary refuge, not permanent asylum and the extension of the scheme to Jews in other occupied countries was prevented. Despite appearances, organisation was often poor and transports chaotic. Foster homes were not adequately assessed and some children faced traumatic abuse.

Even before it was officially accepted, the policy faced numerous obstacles. The almost total lack of existing refugee legislation was one such problem. The Aliens Restriction Act of 1919 contained no asylum clause, only aliens procedures which could be implemented more or less sympathetically for those seeking to enter Britain.

Legislation was not the only obstacle to the Kindertransport policy. The first piece of government legislation controlling immigration was prompted by potent public and media opposition to the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The resulting Aliens Act 1905 was subsumed by further acts in 1914 and 1919, the latter of which was the result of continued fears of foreign invasion and criminality, according to Tony Kushner, history professor at the University of Southampton. These anxieties were magnified after the war ‘with the intensification of insular nationalism and the fear of revolution,’ claims Kushner. They continued to develop into the 1930s when migrants from Eastern Europe were ‘the least desirable […] no matter what problems they were facing at home.’

Despite coming only 33 years after the first piece of immigration legislation, it is clear that the Kindertransport policy was introduced into an established climate of anxiety regarding immigrants, most notably Jews and Eastern Europeans. In the 21 November debate Samuel Hoare acknowledged, ‘It is quite obvious that there is an underlying current of suspicion and anxiety, rightly or wrongly, about alien immigration on any big scale.’

Yet he refused to allow this attitude to dictate government policy, conceding only that, ‘We must keep a check upon individual cases of immigrants.’ Asserting his own principles instead, he claimed, no doubt in opposition to many sceptical Britons, ‘I believe that we could find homes in this country for a very large number without any harm to our own population.’

Hoare went on, appealing to well-established ideas of British justice and fairness, ‘We have a splendid opportunity of raising our own level and rising to be worthy of our own standards in carrying out this task of relief and salvation.’

Hostility to the Kindertransport concept was not limited to Britain. The United States received just 1400 Jewish children between 1934 and 1945 and deliberately made it very difficult for Jewish refugees to obtain an entry visa. A bill proposed in 1939 to admit 20,000 Jewish child refugees failed to get Congressional approval.

European countries were no more welcoming. Instead of relaxing immigration policy after Kristallnacht, the French government passed a law to increase restrictions on aliens and intern refugees.

These illiberal trends from within and outside Britain were threatening the so-called British values of justice, tolerance and equality that many British politicians—propelled by the campaigners of the BJRC and others—were so keen to invoke. Despite this opposition, the British government went ahead with the Kindertransport. The policy’s failings are serious yet its implementation and overall success can be attributed to several factors. These include the policy’s presentation as a moral question directly linked to the preservation of liberal British values and identity, which in this case overrode competing illiberal, xenophobic concerns. The international context gave additional encouragement to ensure the image of liberal Britain prospered. The pre-war mood led the media, politicians and ordinary Britons to cultivate a national identity that highlighted the disparity between British liberalism and German fascism. By offering refuge to the victims of Nazism, the Kindertransport policy was both a refutation of that ideology and a powerful manifestation of liberal British values.

Unsurprisingly, the wartime context also led Britain to adopt some notably illiberal policies, especially as regards immigration and immigrants in Britain. Among these policies, the 1940 cabinet decision to intern all adult German males in Britain was perhaps the nadir. Twenty-seven thousand were interned in total, 80% of whom were Jews, although the majority were quickly released following a public outcry denouncing ‘a dangerous and unjust policy.’ Again, we see the struggle between two notions of Britain, liberal and illiberal, the former eventually proving more powerful and forcing the reversal of a reactionary policy.

The same struggle exists today and the issues are just as complex. Yet rhetoric similar to Sir Samuel Hoare’s, appealing to an image of a liberal, just, compassionate Britain with regard to a refugee crisis, has failed to translate into significant political or public support for resettling Syrian refugees in Britain. As of December 2014, the Syrian conflict has created 4.1 million refugees. Lebanon currently hosts 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees, with over 1 million in Turkey and 800,000 in Jordan. The crisis is largely responsible for raising the number of worldwide refugees to that of the Second World War.

The UNHCR originally asked the international community to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees, a target reached and exceeded earlier this year. British politicians have been quick to praise Britain’s role in this achievement. Yet our promise to provide refuge for a few hundred Syrians is feeble in comparison with the offers from other countries, especially Germany. In 2013, Germany offered places for 10,000 Syrian refugees and announced plans in summer 2014 to take 10,000 more. That’s a pledge of 40 times our own.[2]

Yvette Cooper, Theresa May and other key figures in the debate project, through their rhetoric, the same ideal of a liberal, compassionate and morally admirable Britain as their counterparts did in 1938. According to Nick Clegg, ‘We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help.’ After announcing the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, Theresa May claimed, ‘We are granting asylum to those who need it, consistent with this country’s proud tradition of giving help to those who need it most.’ Yet the decision to give refuge to so few Syrians and the painfully slow implementation of the policy renders these statements hypocritical – today’s Britain has shown itself to be neither ‘open-hearted’ nor acting consistent with the image of a compassionate nation invoked by May.

Many of the obstacles to the Kindertransport have since disappeared and these cannot now be blamed for the current imbalance between liberal rhetoric and illiberal policy. Refugee policy, absent in the pre-war years, is well established and clearly offers the right to asylum for those fleeing persecution. Since 1945, asylum has been given in Britain to thousands fleeing conflicts in Cyprus, Uganda, Vietnam, Bosnia and Kosovo – there is no shortage of precedents for offering refuge in times of crisis. Furthermore, the organisation of and communication between NGOs, refugee organisations and governments has vastly improved, allowing the possibility for more efficient implementation of immigration policy. Lastly, although anti-immigrant attitudes have strengthened in recent years, Britain is a far more tolerant country than it was in 1938.

Contextual differences can go some way to explain the contrast between the UK’s relatively open immigration policy in 1938 and its far less welcoming attitude today. Syrian refugees are fleeing civil war, while European Jews were seeking refuge from an expansionist regime set on the persecution of a racial and cultural minority. The diplomatic complexities and repercussions of government actions in each case are very different.

Furthermore, the small number of Syrian refugees accepted into Britain must be considered alongside both the British financial contribution to the crisis, second only to the United States, and the British government’s key diplomatic role in seeking an end to the conflict.

Indeed, there is a widespread belief – the validity of which demands closer examination than I am able to offer here – that providing relief within the region is preferable to resettling refugees in a country that is geographically and culturally distant from their own. The issue is undeniably complex, but certainly one that has played a more significant role in the government’s deliberations on Syria than in the 1938 refugee debates. The Jewish children and adults offered refuge originated from European nations considered to be fairly culturally similar to Britain and it was hoped that integration would be a smooth process, either into individual host families or into the already 250,000-strong Jewish community in London.

Yet a broader look at current immigration policy suggests that these factors are less important than a prevailing attitude towards immigrants that jars with an image of liberal, just, tolerant Britain. Compared with the outrage regarding German aliens discussed above, British policy on the detention of foreigners has undeniably progressed. Yet the policy and its implementation reveal the potency of illiberal, intolerant attitudes and the gulf between a discourse of liberal British values and a less than liberal reality.

Thousands of foreign-born people are currently held in high security British detention centres without any time limit. Some are asylum seekers whose claims are being processed or have been refused. Others are non-UK citizens who have overstayed their visas or refugees who have completed prison sentences. They are detained often without warning and without trial. Those who have committed crimes have already served their sentence and many others are innocent of any crime except seeking refuge.

The UK is the only country in Europe to impose no time limit on detention. The limit in France is just 45 days, while in Spain and Portugal it is 60 days. Fifteen percent of the migrants and asylum seekers being held in UK centres in June 2011 had been detained for more than six months, often with little idea of when to expect release. Some are even held for several years.

The German Jews in Britain in 1940 and today’s ‘aliens’ face similar prospects. Fleeing persecution, they hope to find refuge in a country that instead suspects them of crimes there is no evidence they will commit. Traumatised by their experiences and disoriented, they are detained without warning, trial or limit in overcrowded and often poorly run centres where they may be at risk of further abuses.

The injustices of today’s detention system, however, cannot be explained away by war hysteria or misjudgement. They are part of a well-established, calculated policy for controlling non-UK citizens. Furthermore, the call for the just treatment of refugees that resonated so powerfully in 1940 is far less vocal today. There are many remarkable charities and groups working to support detainees and influence policy, yet, unlike the advocacy groups working for the Jewish refugees in 1938, their voices struggle to be heard amidst the clamour of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Immigration has become a key battleground at the heart of British politics and society. Policies on Syrian refugees and the detention of immigrants as well as Conservative pledges to reduce net migration below 100,000 and the rise of UKIP all signify and encourage anti-immigrant feeling in the supposed quest for a stronger British identity. Yet in our bid to strengthen that identity by reducing immigration in all its forms, we are contradicting and weakening the image of liberal, tolerant Britain that May, Cooper, Clegg and others have hypocritically continued to invoke in relation to the Syrian crisis.

In 1938, as now, notions of British national identity were strongly contested, but in each instance the invocation of ‘British values’ and ‘tradition’ has been used to promote more open immigration policies. While in the past, the discourse of liberal British values gained traction and resulted in liberal immigration policies, the same discourse is failing to do so today. Somehow we need to find an idea of Britishness that acknowledges complexities and banishes the hypocrisy that all too often exists between enlightened rhetoric and illiberal policies.


[1] The ‘vulnerable persons relocation (VPR) scheme’ announced on 29 January 2014 aims to resettle some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, including victims of sexual violence and torture and the elderly or disabled. There is no quota but it is widely expected that several hundred refugees will be resettled in the UK through this scheme.

[2] However, the UK’s response does find echoes in other European countries where anti-immigrant attitudes and policies are growing and have prompted the re-emergence of the term ‘Fortress Europe.’

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