The politicisation of migration policy in the UK
How responses towards Ukrainians seeking refuge in the UK mirrors historical parallels

By Eliana Hadjisavvas and Sebastian Musch

The British government’s own praise of its track record of welcoming people seeking refuge in the UK stands in stark contrast to the comparatively few visas granted for Ukrainians fleeing the war at home.
Our Landecker Lecturers Eliana Hadjisavvas and Sebastian Musch dive into the historic parallels of Britain’s restrained policy towards refugees during World War II and what lessons policymakers should draw from it in the present context.

Generally, as a country, we have a huge track record, we’ve welcomed 25,000 refugees flowing from many conflicts around the globe, we have a huge tradition… I think we’ve got to stop talking this country down, stop talking our history of welcoming refugees [down] and actually celebrate it.” These words, part of a passionate defence by Conservative MP, Suella Braverman, on the British government’s policy towards Ukrainian refugees, seemed somewhat lost on a recent BBC Question Time audience. As members of the public sat unmoved by her riposte, rolling eyes, and shaking heads, her portrayal of Britain as an open sanctuary had clearly failed to rouse the patriotic applause that she was perhaps expecting.

Since hostilities began on 24 February, visa-less Ukrainians have fled their homes and headed for borders, seeking safety with their European neighbours. At present, while Poland, Romania, and Moldova have consecutively welcomed almost 4.5 million people into their territories, the UK stands in stark contrast with a meagre 11,500 visas issued under the government’s “Homes for Ukraine” scheme. The generosity of the British people to open their doors to displaced Ukrainians has been hindered by government bureaucracy and intransigence, with claims of security concerns hampering the processing of documents. But while the public has been bewildered by Whitehall’s approach, such policy is nothing new. We have, tragically, been here before, with the UN refugee agency noting that not since the Second World War has Europe experienced such rapid displacement. Braverman may have been quick to reference Britain’s historical legacy, but how did Britain respond to refugees from Nazism during the war and its aftermath, and what can, if anything, be learned from this markedly different, but soberingly relevant, historical past?

Despite celebratory and commended initiatives such the Kindertransport, which saved 10,000 children from Nazi-controlled territories, the British response to Jewish refugees from Europe during the Second World War was often fraught with contradictions. As the Nazi regime ramped up its persecution of German Jews and introduced discriminatory laws – the most infamous being the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 – Jewish communities became increasingly eager to flee their homelands. As the subsequent first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, remarked in 1936: there “are now two sorts of countries in the world, those that want to expel the Jews and those that don't want to admit them.” Whitehall’s apprehension that an influx of ‘unassimilable’ Jewish refugees could overwhelm British society, saw approximately 10 percent of an estimated 600,000 visa applications approved. In 1938, the failure of the Evian Conference, which sought a solution on the settlement of Jewish refugees from Germany, led to many people perishing during the Holocaust. Five years later in 1943, the much smaller but equally as ineffective, American-British Bermuda Conference on refugees, once again, failed to extend offers of sanctuary, despite details of Nazi genocidal policy increasingly known. Such examples stand as a reminder that a failure to turn words of sympathy into action has generally underpinned British political responses to asylum.

Even in times of war and genocide, restrictive migration policy has been justified by politicians on the basis of security concerns. Fears of an infiltration of ‘undesirables’, or even malicious actors, have not only dictated policy, but have also been used by to stoke xenophobic sentiment. Priti Patel's early warning that Russian spies could pose as Ukrainian refugees echoes past statements concerning Nazi spies posing as Jewish refugees, or more recently, Islamic State terrorists entering Europe in 2015. While these concerns are not always completely unfounded, stringent security vetting often means that those most desperate and vulnerable fail to be protected. Citing security concerns has become a favoured tool of right-wing politicians in their attempts to curb immigration, but it’s by no means a new political tactic. At the outbreak of the Second World War, German, Italian, and Austrian citizens were considered enemy aliens by the British government and interned in detention camps, while others were deported overseas. Among them were almost 30,000 Jewish refugees who, on account of their nationality, found themselves imprisoned together with pro-Nazi Germans. Patel’s reference to the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury as justification for the increased scrutiny of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression, to an extent, mirrors historic responses which failed to distinguish between victim and persecutor, by grouping all nationals as a collective security threat. The politicisation of refugees, both past and present, has not only dictated migration policy, but undermined humanitarian efforts and threatened individuals’ legal rights to asylum.

An end to hostilities in Ukraine remains uncertain, but history tells us that the cessation of violence will not necessarily bring an end to the plight of forced migrants. At the end of the Second World War, approximately 11 million people remained displaced throughout Europe. For many Jewish refugees unable or unwilling to return to their former homelands, migration to the then British Mandate of Palestine, where the emergence of a Jewish state was imminent, was pursued. Under Britain’s restrictive 1939 White Paper, Jewish migration to Palestine was capped at 75,000 visas over the next five years. By the war’s end, these stringent immigration measures were upheld, which forced many Holocaust survivors to embark on ‘illegal’ immigration passages across the Mediterranean to enter Palestine covertly. In an attempt to deter future voyages, the British government responded by establishing detention camps in its former colonial territory of Cyprus, where approximately 53,000 displaced Jews were interned between 1946-49. In recent years, questions of ‘illegality’ have defined nation states’ responses to the migrant crisis, with Southern Europe littered with camps and calls for more permanent offshore detention facilities touted as a viable solution. The British government’s recent announcement that it will detain asylum seekers in centres in Rwanda, graphically highlights the direction of future policy. While it is crucial to be mindful of the differing historical contexts between then and now, and the agency of the individuals at the heart of these movements, what’s clear is that in the face of persecution, people will continue to move, with detention doing little to dampen their resolve.

The past decade has seen Europe pursued as a sanctuary for those fleeing conflict and escaping oppression. Now, it is Europeans themselves who have been forced from their homelands. As people continue to cross land and sea, humanitarians have stressed the importance of secure and safe passages to asylum, which the current crisis has graphically highlighted. In an open letter to The Telegraph, professional historians expressed their concern at the British government’s inadequate response to Ukrainian refugees and the parallels with the historic plight of European Jews. Rather than ‘talking down history’ as Suella Braverman suggested, acknowledging such historical narratives of failure forms part of understanding the context of migration today, and in turn, must be used as a lesson for lasting change.

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