A history lesson

I spent Monday in the archives. Most of the time I’m an ex-historian now, busy arguing about what should happen, not what did happen. But occasionally a day of detecting in old files brings the two together.
History holds many warnings. I’m often struck by just how often our anxieties our simply the latest iterations of dilemmas past. Reading parliamentary briefing papers for 1938, I was struck by the extent to which rhetoric around migration, immigration and refugees in that decade of disaster is echoed today.
Except, of course, the official indifference then reads more terribly in hindsight. We all know what happened next, in 1939. And we shouldn’t forget that the refugee protections we have today – the battered 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees – are atonement for the paralysis of the asylum system in the 1930s which condemned many to death at the hands of the Nazis.
Some of the archival file shock because they could almost be headlines from today. The headline ‘Screaming Aliens in Air Liner’, for instance, detailing the ‘extraordinary scenes’ which occurred when an attempt was made to send 12 Jews back to Warsaw in 1938. How far have we come: as far as Jimmy Mubenga? As far as the Kurd who sewed his mouth together in an attempt to avoid return to Iraq, some of his 49 companions in leg irons?
And who wouldn’t shudder now at the Daily Mail’s 1938 headline: “German Jews pouring into this country”? But what about today’s news?  After all:  “Asylum: you’re right to worry”; “Bombers are all spongeing asylum seekers”; “Asylum gets even softer”. History has a way of reframing our moral absolutes.
Even parliamentary arguments see the same rhetoric, the same cadences. Britain is ‘too crowded’ for the admission of more European migrants in 2011, just as it was ‘overcrowded’ in 1938, when German Jews were desperate for admission to escape economic poverty as well as persecution. And the counter-arguments remain as impressive, and as ignored. Noel-Baker repeatedly insisted that ‘the Labour party should pursue a generous policy with regard to immigration not merely on moral grounds but because of its actual benefit to the country as a whole’. 11,000 refugees had provided 15,000 jobs for British employees, at a time of an economic depression even worse than the one faced today.
Many of the answers were there in the 1930s: popular anti-immigration sentiment ‘is only an aspect of the great paradox of unemployment in the midst of plenty; and unless we face up to it, we shall certainly fail to deal with our own unemployment problem’ (Noel-Baker again). Immigration, inequality, prejudice: the answers to all these remain the same: poverty is the enemy, not movement. But as in 1938 and 1939, when Jewish migration remained heavily restricted across the globe, the answers are largely ignored. We continue to believe in the idea that we can draw a fine line between the “genuine refugee” and the “bogus asylum seeker”.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of reflections on the 60th Anniversary of the Convention: pledges from states that may or may not amount to concrete commitments. Yet I wonder whether we focus too much on celebrating the achievements of 1951, on praising our own progressive politics, when in fact states’ intentions today arguably lie far closer to the institutional isolation of 1938.
History can teach us many lessons, but only if we remember them. It’s very easy to dismiss any parallels with migration policy in the 1930s hyperbole, as irrelevant to our modern economics. But for me, the distance between then and now – in terms of the dignity afforded to migrants – is the thin wedge of papers that make up the Convention. Understanding why 1951 matters requires some understandings of the terrible failures of the 1930s, and some recognition of just how close we may be to replicating these same policies now. We may think we condemn the politicians of the 1930s who insisted ‘the lifeboat [was] full’. But let’s not point too smugly at our own twenty-first century lifeboat, given how often we seem to insist that very few of those who are drowning deserve to be rescued.

    2 Comments on “A history lesson

    1. A good article, but you baffle me with the phrase: “Now substitute Islamists for Jews”. Do you know what “Islamist” means? It’s not synonymous with “Muslim”. It refers to a heavily politicised form of Islamic fundamentalism.

    2. Thanks for reading, and for the comment. It’s been a while since I wrote this, but I don’t think the intention was ever to suggest that Islamist (which I recognise is a highly contested term) is interchangeable with “Muslim” – more to point out that it’s a term I think is often heavily over-used by tabloid press as a contemporary bogeyman. However, you’re right to point out that as it stands it can be misread. I’ve edited accordingly.