The internationally renowned giant puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian displaced child visited Cheltenham this month. ‘Little Amal’ had just left Lviv in Ukraine, where she met displaced children and families fleeing the violence of war. She was in Gloucestershire to mark National Refugee Week.
Despite the fact that the UK’s own population is a melting pot of history, language and culture and that the UK has been exporting its own population and culture around the planet for centuries, I recently heard someone complaining bitterly about the number of ‘immigrants’ crossing the channel and rather surprisingly blaming Theresa May.
They concluded that she had not been ‘hard enough’ despite the controversial policies she introduced in 2012 as Home Secretary. Although many of these ‘immigrants’ were genuine refugees or had a legal right to be here, she said at the time;
“The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”
It seems to us now that, no matter whether it is to escape war, famine, persecution, or you actually have a legal right to be here, Britain will not accept you. And history shows us, this attitude is not new; it’s been happening for centuries.
There has been trade and travel across the channel since prehistoric times and UK history is dominated by invasions of Celts, Saxons and Vikings etc. plus several hundred years of Roman domination and even of course, the French. In 1066 they defeated an Anglo Saxon/Danish coalition and their French language was to dominate court life and our institutions for centuries and have a major ongoing impact on Britain’s language and culture.
Yet, despite all this history and a Royal family with a distinctly foreign pedigree it seems that some people in the UK just don’t seem to welcome foreigners coming here, ever.
Even the obvious dependency of the NHS on foreign workers doesn’t affect how we view ‘immigrants’. According to the Nuffield Trust, as of December 2020 15% of all NHS hospital and community services staff had non-UK nationalities. The figure is much higher for doctors.
Historically, this negative response to foreigners has sometimes been related to religion. In York, in 1190, about 150 Jews killed themselves after being besieged by a mob. In 1255; 18 Jews in Lincoln were executed and others vanished, after a mystery death attributed to a Jew; in 1264 a rumour that the Jews of London were plotting against the city saw hundreds killed. In 1278, nearly 700 were arrested for alleged counterfeiting and perhaps as many as 300 were executed. After decades of attacks, high taxes and restricted rights, the entire Jewish community, between 5,000 and 15,000 people, was expelled from Britain in 1290. The ban would not be lifted for 360 years!
‘British jobs for British workers’ and issues relating to work and trade have consistently been used against foreigners. Wool was medieval England’s top industry and about 1,000 expert Flemish weavers were in London by the mid-14th Century but in 1378 London weavers demanded control of the Flemish, saying they were “for the most part exiled from their own country as notorious malefactors”. This was bloodily expressed during in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt when about 40 Flemings were dragged from a church and subjected to a language test.
As witnesses described it:
“And many Flemings lost their heads at that time, because they could not say ‘bread and cheese’ but ‘brode en case’.”
Professor Mark Ormrod (Emeritus Professor of History at the University of York) calculated:
“For many people, nationality was simple: you were either born in England, or you weren’t. Foreigners were sometimes treated as a single, undifferentiated whole.’
Even Venetian ambassadors to England in the 15th Century were “perplexed by the English – especially by their extreme hostility to foreigners”, although a 1440 tax survey of aliens indicates they made up 2% of England’s population – reaching up to 10% in London and Bristol.
It seems, the attitude is not a new one!
In 1530 Henry VIII forbade Gypsies from entering England while Protestant refugees, known as “Huguenots” escaping religious wars on the continent, became a flood after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in 1572. Many British seemed unimpressed at the time although they brought exceptional technical skills and a strong work ethic with them.
“They are a commonwealth within themselves. They keep themselves severed from us in church, in government, in trade, in language and marriage.”
This accusation that might easily be applied to many British ex-pats abroad.
Even the word ‘refugee’ has its roots in this period of 17th-century France when the Huguenots left their country to escape religious persecution. The French ‘refugie’ became the English ‘refugee’.
Of course, describing foreigners in negative terms (as is often found today in sections of the British tabloid press) isn’t a new feature. In 1593, posters appeared complaining of the “beastly brutes the Belgians, faint-hearted Frenchmen and fraudulent Flemings” who were permitted by Queen Elizabeth, it was claimed, “to live here in better case and more freedom than her own people”. However, her authorities were not above scapegoating. Black people might have numbered only about 1,000, but Elizabeth moved to expel them in 1596, saying,
“there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are allready here to manie”.
History has a habit of repeating itself!
However, in 1708 leaflets had raised sympathy for German Protestants – ‘Poor Palatines’ – caught up in new religious wars. The first boatloads – about 900 people in all – were given food and supplies, but an estimated 13,000 landed within months. Donations raised thousands of pounds but most of these new arrivals were housed in army camps on Blackheath.
Rumours soon swirled of German gangs attacking locals, amid claims many were not even Protestants. One negative pamphleteer described them as
“a parcel of vagabonds, who might have lived comfortably enough in their native country, had not laziness of their dispositions and report of our well-known generosity drawn them out of it”.
There have been similar sentiments regularly expressed in sections of today’s press but the idea of lazy migrants, despite economic evidence to the contrary, is not a new one. In the nineteenth century one solution was to send them abroad! Not to Rwanda but to marginal farmland in a strife-torn part of the British Isles – Ireland. England’s long and often painful relationship with Ireland went into overdrive in the Victorian era, thanks to the demand for labour, faster steamship travel and, tragically, the Irish famine of 1845-52. Being legally part of Britain, the Irish needed no special permission to travel and Robert Winder, author of Bloody Foreigners, says:
“I don’t think anyone has been the subject of such bitter feelings as the Irish in the 19th Century. This is partly because they were Papists, the religious dimension, but also they were really poor.’
The Times in 1847 reported an “Invasion”, saying:
“Ireland is pouring into the cities, and even the villages of this land, a disgusting mass of famine, nakedness and dirt and fever.”
This sort of language isn’t new of course, ex Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the Calais crisis to ITV News, spoke of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. The Refugee Council, which works with refugees in the UK, has said his comments were “irresponsible” and “dehumanising”.
Violence abroad, as with World War Two and the recent invasion of Ukraine brings new challenges. Although the government response to Ukraine refugees has been inadequate the population have been considerably more supportive. Previous bloody pogroms in Russia and Prussia in the 1880’s had forced about 200,000 Jews to Britain – bringing radical politics and cheap labour. In 1888 The Morning Post said:
“No one can doubt that there is a very serious side to this wholesale immigration of poor Russian Jews… it may become a source of positive danger and demoralisation to a large section of our working population.”
The established – and often successful – Jewish community tried hard to help but this highlighted the immigrant’s ‘Catch 22’. If they were successful, they were greedy fat-cats; if poor, they were idle leeches.
The outbreak of war 1914 saw national security used to slam the doors fairly firmly shut on immigration but following World War Two it was Britain’s fading Empire that laid the foundations for a new era of immigration. Needing new workers after 1945, Britain took in or allowed to stay, tens of thousands of people from continental Europe, with little controversy.
A call was also made to the colonies and when steamer Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948, with about 500 Caribbean passengers aboard, it made front-page news. The Evening Standard greeted the “sons of Empire” with a large “Welcome Home!” headline. Sixty years later, despite their contribution to Britain’s institutions and culture Theresa May and the Home Office created their ‘hostile environment.’ People were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and in at least 83 cases wrongly deported from the UK. The March 2020 independent Windrush Lessons Learned Review conducted by the inspector of constabulary concluded that the Home Office had shown “ignorance and thoughtlessness” and that what had happened had been “foreseeable and avoidable.”
Now a modern phase of mass migration is under way. Many of those crossing the Channel have come from war zones such as Syria, North Africa and Afghanistan, are escaping persecution and the ever-increasing impact of climate change that Britain is partly responsible for. But the fears, controversies and arguments they provoke have been well practised through the centuries and remain with us today.
Maybe, just maybe, the time has come for Britain to have a serious look at how it deals with the issues raised by refugees and migrants and rather than demonizing and caricaturing those in need it also accepts its responsibilities and works on realistic solutions. Or will history just keep repeating itself.
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