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MPs look to history for answers to today’s refugee plight

Historians from the University of East Anglia (UEA) will meet with MPs to discuss parallels between Britain’s responses to the plight of refugees in the 1930s and today, and look for policy solutions.

The UEA academics and partners from humanitarian organisations will present the findings to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Archives and History on Thursday. Panellists include Dr Becky Taylor of UEA’s School of History; Labour Peer Lord Alf Dubs, who came to Britain as a child refugee; Dima Mekdad, co-founder of the Qisetna: Talking Syria project; and Lisa Matthews of Right to Remain, which supports people in the asylum and immigration systems. The panel is chaired by Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour MP for Torfaen.

UEA’s Refugee History project has drawn from material held in the National Archives at Kew to create an occasional paper, ‘Refugee History: the 1930s crisis and today’, which will be presented to the APPG. Written by Dr Taylor, a reader in modern history, and Dr Kate Ferguson, an honorary research fellow in UEA’s School of History, the paper provides four case studies that draw analogies between the plight of vulnerable people fleeing discrimination, violence, and insecurity in the 1930s and today.

The paper is published with the support of the charity Protection Approaches, which defends the rights of all peoples who are violently targeted because of their identity, whether in the UK or abroad. The research is also supported by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London. 

The APPG will also discuss Britain's responses to and responsibilities towards the global challenges of forced human displacement. The group will consider:

  • Who is responsible for refugees after they have left their country of origin?
  • Does Europe, or Britain, have any responsibility for people fleeing violence, environmental collapse and economic chaos in the Middle East or Africa?

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR reported in 2016 that the number of displaced people, at 65.3 million, was the highest ever recorded. At one out of every 113 people in the world, it surpassed even post-World War II numbers.

The UK will redefine its policy towards mass displacement as it prepares to withdraw from the European Union. The Refugee History paper states:

  • We believe Britain has the opportunity to take an international lead in promoting a burden-sharing solution to the current global refugee situation whether at home, with partners in the EU, or through throwing the full weight of its influence behind the UNHCR.
  • We remind the UK Government and its EU partners that how they respond to the plight of vulnerable people reaching Europe’s shores will be recorded in domestic and international refugee and human rights history.
  • We urge the UK government to use an evidence-based approach – including historical evidence – to inform future policy regarding reception and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees.

Dr Taylor said: “Britain’s political and social engagement with issues of migration and refugees is approaching a critical juncture, as it seeks to redefine itself outside of the European Union.

“Our work suggests that lessons learnt and global commitments made after the Second World War and in the wake of the Holocaust are being forgotten. But we also argue that the United Kingdom has an opportunity, as it did in the 1930s, to show political leadership at home and on the international stage.

“History can helpfully offer up examples for consideration, allowing us to look differently at present events, and point to potential policy solutions.”

The APPG meeting provides the opportunity for “an evidence-based conversation that draws on historical expertise, research and experience to enhance current efforts to address today’s global challenges,” she said.

Dr Ferguson, who is also director of research & policy at Protection Approaches, said: “If ‘Brexit Britain’ really is to become a more ‘global Britain’, could this translate into the UK taking a strong leadership role in one of the world’s most pressing and seemingly intractable problems?

“The need for global leadership toward the protection of civilians from mass atrocities is urgent. The evidence-based research from the Refugee History project and our partners throws up stark warnings from history but also offers a way forward.”

Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “We have a proud history in the UK of being a safe haven for refugees. This is evidence of the generosity of spirit of so many people over many generations.  As we consider the many displaced people in our modern world, we can find lessons and warnings in world history.   I am grateful to those who have contributed their perspectives to today’s event held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History as we seek to tackle this great humanitarian challenge with compassion.” 

Refugee History: The 1930s crisis and today’ by Dr Becky Taylor and Dr Kate Ferguson is published today by Protection Approaches

Image credit: bertknot/flickr creative commons

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