The British Response to Refugees – The Better Side of Us

In the midst of a painful week, the tragic death of MP Jo Cox, the senseless loss of life in Orlando, football violence around the Euros and the caustic nature of the referendum debate it is important to think on the good and righteous acts of individuals. To recognise that some of the most heroic acts of kindness happen right beside the worst examples of human depravity.

The Kinder transport – the rescue of thousands of Jewish children ahead of the Nazi onslaught across Europe from 1938- 40 is one such example of British bravery, tenaciousness and dedication. This is particularly demonstrated in the life of Sir Nicholas Winton who died a year ago in July. His efforts to rescue children serves as a reminder of the innate compassion of the British people. The organisation and all the funding this immense operation required did not come from the government of the day, but from the donations of individuals and the commitment of a small group of private citizens who would not turn their backs on the plight of the most vulnerable refugees of that time.

At the forefront of this project, organising, financing and taking in these children were, faith communities. It is interesting today to see that some of the greatest challenge to government policy on refugees comes again from faith groups. Their voice is given extra volume because they are already on the ground providing support and welcome, and thus it’s not some theoretical cry for action but the voice of those who are willing to get involved.

This is a story for today as, in the middle of the self-seeking arguments around the EU referendum – (will it affect the economy? The price of my house? Will we get to control immigration?) It seems that no one is making the moral case. What is the right thing to do? Not ‘what is the best thing for me as an individual?’ I’m sure that arguments could be pushed either way – but at the moment this is not even a question being debated. There is just an appeal to the basest selfish desires and fears of the population.

What is clear is that the referendum debate is not a narrow discussion of whether we want to remain in the EU or not. Underneath the presented issues of In and Out, the civil war in the Conservative party, the loss of the working class by the Labour party and the near silence of the Lib Dems, is a more fundamental question – what sort of country do we want to be? Neither Remain nor Leave has won the moral high ground, as neither of them has tried to take it.

It is interesting that in the midst of the inertia of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement government; morally bankrupt by failed compromise and slothful in reaction to circumstances on the continent, it was faith communities, civil society organisations and individuals such as Nicholas Winton who, not only got the ball rolling, for the Kinder transport, but ran the whole programme. This sometimes meant bending rules and, upsetting systems – and of course the people smugglers then were the heroes and principled individuals not the profiteering opportunist they are in 2016. Is there space for such spirited individuals today? Those who won’t rest, won’t be blocked by bureaucracy or indifference? We know that this spirit exists in the psyche of Brits today, as a simple look at the people volunteering to take in refugees last summer shows that In or Out we remain a compassionate people.

It would be good to look back at this difficult time and see that we have a legacy like those who took part in the Kinder transport, as this clip from That’s life shows.

The week of 20th June is Refugee Week with Monday being International Refugee Day. I hope that we celebrate as a country the sanctuary we have provided within our borders as well as looking at what we should be doing to face this dire issue in the world today.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post and LinkedIn.

About Daniel Singleton

National Executive Director

Daniel Singleton has been the National Executive Director of FaithAction since 2007. This role has seen Daniel forge close working relationships across a number of national government departments, as well as local statutory and voluntary-sector bodies. As part of FaithAction’s mission to connect national and local government with grassroots organisations, Daniel also meets regularly with FaithAction member groups to help them develop in their social action.