The refugee experience remains inextricably linked to Jewish identity
It is an uneasy coincidence that during the very time when we commemorate seventy-five years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the House of Lords has been debating a bill which removes protections for refugees fleeing present-day atrocities.
The Lords were considering an EU Withdrawal Bill from which the so-called Dubs amendment—which sought to protect unaccompanied child migrants’ right to reunite with their families in the UK after Brexit—has been removed. According to Lord Dubs, the Holocaust survivor and Labour peer who proposed the amendment, the government claims it has withdrawn the amendment in order to avoid tying its hands in Brexit negotiations.
For many in the Jewish community, the amendment’s erasure has hit a raw nerve. The Kindertransport, when Britain allowed the entry of almost 10,000 mostly Jewish unaccompanied children from Nazi-occupied Europe, retains an iconic place in the public imagination as an example of Britain at its generous and humane best (though many maintain that the government of the day could have rescued many more).
At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a scheme to take in Syrian refugees as another Kindertransport moment for the UK. The reality did not match the rhetoric. The indomitable Lord Alf Dubs, who himself arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport in 1939, has led this struggle for the young refugees that succeeded him. He demanded the government admit 3,000 unaccompanied young people, only around 5% of those seeking asylum in Europe. The government eventually accepted admission of an unspecified number (480, it later transpired), and agreed to incorporate a commitment to family reunification in the EU Withdrawal Bill. It is this already flimsy commitment which has now been abandoned by Boris Johnson, in a decision that certainly feels like an extension of the hostile environment, which we had hoped was a policy of the past.
We need to ask why the new government has prioritised removing their commitment, adding more uncertainty to an already confusing situation. It is shocking that the government is opposing family reunification for child refugees, and important that we make the government aware of the depth of feeling about this, both in the Jewish community and beyond. The government’s action will not stop young refugees from trying to come to Britain, but is likely to result in them taking increasingly dangerous routes to do so, putting them at the mercy of traffickers and people smugglers.
During the Nazi era and beyond, tens of thousands of European Jews attempted to enter British Mandate Palestine ‘illegally’ and hundreds drowned in the process. The refugee experience remains inextricably linked to Jewish identity - when refugee experience is denigrated, the Jewish experience is also denigrated. This is one of the reasons I started The Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) in 1976. JCORE provides a Jewish voice on race and asylum issues and both campaigns and provides practical support for refugees. In starting JCORE I was greatly influenced by Jewish involvement in both the civil rights and peace movements in 1960s America. It is this tradition of Jewish social justice which also motivates the myriad of refugee projects run within the Jewish community, ranging from synagogue drop-in centres for destitute asylum seekers to campaigning for refugee rights. Continuing this proud history of activism was also one of the reasons why JCORE took part in a demonstration outside parliament organised by Safe Passage and Help Refugees, as it is important that the Jewish community raises its voice on this important issue.
The government must sit down with refugee organisations and develop safe and legal routes for desperate young people to reach our shores. Excuses that doing this would only encourage more young people to come here are not borne out by facts, nor that there are insufficient places to receive them when local authorities’ places have not been taken up, as apparently there are more than 1,000 such places available.
Common sense and compassion must prevail – a fitting response to showing we have heeded at least some of the lessons from the horror which we commemorate this month. As part of this, the Jewish community must work more closely with other communities to show that our refugee past is a part and parcel of British history and not something separate from it.
We all have a responsibility to show a counter-narrative that demonstrates that refugees are welcome in Britain, not only for what they may contribute but how it defines us as a nation. It is often said that the mark of a humane society how it treats its refugees. Ultimate it is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation, something which will become increasingly important as we prepare to leave the EU.
Originally printed on The Jewish Chronicle website, 21 Jan 2020