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The Refuge and the Fortress

Britain and the Persecuted, 1933-2013


Jeremy Seabrook


Foreword by Jon Snow

London: HarperMacmillan 2013 (Second Edition*)

Paperback. xii + 286 p. ISBN 978-1137327864. £16.99


Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin

University of Birmingham



Why is the debate on immigration into the UK and the seeking of asylum there so politically toxic? This is an issue that typically gives rise to some of the most inflamed debates in public discourse, with terms like ‘benefit shopping’ and ‘health tourism’ bandied around without regard for supporting evidence (as a European Commission report recently demonstrated). The press are happy to seize on any transgressions, labelling all asylum seekers as ‘bogus’. The politicians follow in their footsteps, fearful of being outflanked on the issue by the populist right, their advisors dog-whistling advice that they should strike a posture that will show them as being ‘tough’, cracking down implacably on evasion and freeloading. Successive immigration bills bear the unmistakeable imprint of this approach.

In a globalised world with substantial movements of populations between continents immigration and emigration are wholly familiar phenomena, their consequences part of the pattern of everyday life in all developed countries – witness the diversity exemplified by the present population of London. Yet national boundaries are still to be protected as a potent symbol of separation and difference and their guardians – the keepers of the keys to the ‘island fortress’ – invited to discriminate with ever increasing severity among those seeking to enter. Whatever narrative these intending migrants offer – the risks they run in their countries of origin to their professional integrity, livelihood, liberty or even their lives and those of their families – will not give them much purchase against the (presumed) fears of ‘swamping’ the national culture and precipitating public disorder on a massive scale.

Jeremy Seabrook’s study, The Refuge and the Fortress, now in a welcome second edition, provides an overview of the experiences of some of the successive waves of immigrants who have sought refuge in this country since 1933 – the year in which Hitler came to power in Germany. He concentrates mainly on academics, because his book is in some respects a house history of the organisation now known as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) which was originally set up in Britain to help those expelled from their posts in German Universities – the vast majority of them Jews. But the story he has to tell touches on many of the broader issues that immigration raises and in particular the question that I began by posing.

It is now almost universally agreed that Britain’s acceptance of refugees from Nazi Germany in the nineteen thirties shows, to put crudely, a very substantial credit balance on both sides. Those who came here and stayed (perhaps 50,000 in all) contributed handsomely to the economic, intellectual and aesthetic life of this country in the second half of the twentieth century. The roll of honour – the knighthoods and memberships of learned societies – reflects their individual achievements; perhaps even more significant is the collective impact of their successes on the texture of life in this country and the contribution made by the next generation, their equally high achieving children.

Ah, some would say, that was then – the circumstances now are very different. The threat that the Nazis posed was obvious and immediate; those who fled were a particularly well-educated and motivated group, who showed themselves to be highly adaptable, very willing to adjust to the demands made on them. Their numbers were not great. The country in which they sought refuge was stable and orderly and its values and culture was homogeneous and universally accepted. Now, the country that once took them in has changed almost beyond recognition. It is cosmopolitan but also subject to a whole series of new stresses and strains. It has had to adjust to a new place in the world, much diminished from the imperial role that still defined our national identity in the Britain where the Hitler refugees sought refuge. Popular opinion is not sympathetic to appeals for help that involve accepting human beings who turn up on our doorstep – charity for refugees is something to be kept at a distance, providing financial help for those starving in camps in the desert, not visas for entry to an overcrowded country.

Certainly it is true that those seeking refuge from Nazi Germany were a distinctive group. But the experiences that Seabrook describes show that they faced a whole series of obstacles, many of which would still be painfully familiar to those attempting to obtain entry today. The organisation set up by Sir William Beveridge and his colleagues, initially known as the Academic Assistance Committee (AAC), was notably well connected within the British academic and political establishment and pitched their appeal for support with great care (this is helpfully reprinted in an Appendix). Yet in seeking to obtain entry and support for the group on whose behalf they were campaigning, they encountered a rigid bureaucracy, a hostile press, politicians fearful of the impact on ‘public opinion’ at a time of economic depression and since for obvious reasons (the vast majority of them being Jews) an overlay of anti-semitism, particularly in the medical profession.

It is greatly to the credit of the AAC that they persisted in the face of all these obstacles – and secured admission for some of the cases they had adopted. As the intentions of the Nazi regime became progressively clearer (first the Nuremberg Laws, then the Anschluss, Kristallnacht, and finally the invasion of Czechoslovakia) the British government rather grudgingly began to open the door wider until with the Kindertransport scheme they sanctioned a genuinely imaginative scheme that rescued substantial number of children. But the story of the refugee academics and professionals still had one more twist. When the war that eventually seemed inevitable did actually arrive, the refugees was recategorised as ‘enemy aliens’ and in the panic after the fall of France in 1940 they were swept off into detention camps in remote corners of the UK or transported to Canada and Australia. That they survived those experiences, understood why the British government had acted in this way and that this did not compromise their commitment to their adopted country is deeply impressive. They were, as some of them put it, ‘His Majesty’s most loyal aliens’ and proved it by fighting for him – as the maladroit malice of the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s father Ralph recently reminded us.

It might be thought that with the return of peace in 1945 and the successful acceptance of the Hitler refugees in Britain the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), as it had become, would have little more work to do. Not so. The descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe soon produced new cases of harassment of academics and professionals in Eastern European countries in the Soviet bloc. In the Soviet Union itself, academic freedom was in continual danger of being compromised, as the case of geneticists unwilling to accept the Lysenko doctrines vividly illustrated. So SPSL and its devoted secretary Esther Simpson soldiered on with very limited resources. Then towards the end of the fifties, another ‘special case’ arose, that of South Africa under the apartheid regime. The departure of members of a whole generation of talented young academics and lawyers, many of them Jews, was accelerated by the regime’s imposition of increasingly harsh restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly and admission of students. Once again, the misfortunes of those unable or unwilling to conform with these constraints on academic freedom worked indirectly to Britain’s advantage, as another group of talented and highly motivated exiles arrived in Britain and began to make rapid progress up the various professional ladders. They were followed in the 1970s with more refugees from another striking example of the persecution of a highly educated elite – Chilean academics and professionals after the Pinochet coup d’état.

By this stage, as Seabrook puts it, much of the energy had deserted SPSL and most of the burden of dealing with these and other exiled groups fell to better-funded bodies. However, under the new title it then assumed, CARA, the organisation has made a remarkable comeback. Seabrook provides a series of biographies of more recent cases from across the Middle East and Africa, including many academics, professionals (doctors in particular) and students. Most of the stories from these case studies – Seabrook doesn’t claim that they are in the social scientific sense representative – display similar characteristics to the experiences of the academic exiles of the 1930s. There are the constant struggles with an unsympathetic or uncomprehending bureaucracy (the Home Office and now the UK Border Agency). There are similar issues with a popular press always anxious to ramp up public anxieties (however legitimate in principle) with melodramatic stories of gross abuse by immigrants and links to terrorism. Islamophobia has now replaced anti-semitism as a further ground for suspicion. And there are the politicians, always fearful of being made to seem unresponsive to public concerns, however ill-based (polling shows that in the population at large the numbers of immigrants believed to be in Britain is habitually wildly exaggerated).

However, the responses of the migrants themselves in the face of suspicion and in some cases rejection seem to be rather different to those of their predecessors. If Seabrook’s cases are typical, they are less prepared to display patience in the face of harsh treatment, less willing to accept the loss of status often imposed on them as a condition of their continued residence – there is often a striking lack of respect shown by authorities for their academic or professional standing before their migration. What amounts to administrative banishment to remote and sometimes semi-rural corners of Britain is treated not as an opportunity but as an additional punishment.

The often much resented harshness of the UK Border Agency’s regime, under which they have to live while awaiting permission to stay is to some extent counterbalanced in Seabrook’s accounts by the practical help many of them have received, not just from specialist organisations like CARA but from local support networks and sometimes through vigorous local campaigning in their favour, sometimes led by churches. And their own accounts sometimes add to that positive experiences of ordinary human contact, and the development of warm personal relationships.

As to the future role of organisations like CARA, Seabrook has a particularly interesting account of the use of new technology to fill gaps in higher education left by the near-collapse of academic standards in Zimbabwe. This imaginative approach suggests other ways of offering help of an immediate and practical kind (usefully summarised in another Appendix).

So Seabrook concludes his account of CARA’s work with some modestly hopeful ideas about how help can be given in the twenty-first century world to address some familiar problems. But changes in technology are not in themselves sufficient to help surmount the problems of endemic hostility to outsiders in general and for academic refugees in particular, an anti-intellectualism perpetuated by the values exemplified in popular culture. A simple repetition by those with weight and authority in our own society of the importance of observing the Golden Rule (‘Do as you would be done by’), as Pope Francis has recently done in the case of mass drownings of intending migrants in the Mediterranean, may not be sufficient. But it might be a good start.


*First edition published in 2009 as The Refuge and the Fortress : Britain and the Flight from Tyranny.


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