World Refugee Day

Today is #WorldRefugeeDay and the start of @RefugeeWeek.  This UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

The University’s Special Collections documents stories of millions of refugees who have sought sanctuary in the UK from Spanish refugees seeking assistance from the first Duke of Wellington after fleeing their country in the 1820s, to those who have been victims of more recent wars.

For example, in 1922 Atlantic Park opened in Eastleigh, at the time one of the biggest transmigratory camps in the world. Its purpose was to bring migrants together in one place, provide them with better conditions and protect them from unscrupulous people. A large proportion of the people at the camp were Ukrainian Jewish refugees.

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Booth in the interior of the hall at Atlantic Park, Eastleigh, with a number of the refugees in residence at the transit camp, 1920s [MS 311/53]

Conditions in the camp, however, were generally far from acceptable and deaths were not infrequent. Due to increasingly strict immigration laws, many refugees remained in the camp for longer than intended, unable to settle in a new, safer home.  A report on condition in the camp can be found in the minutes of the Executive Committee of the Union of Jewish Women. [MS 129/B/6 AJ 26]

The Kindertransport is perhaps one of the more famous humanitarian efforts of the Second World War.  Chief Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld – executive director of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council from its foundation in 1938 until 1946 – supported children coming to the UK in 1938 and was personally involved in escorting groups of Jewish children from the ghettos in Poland to Great Britain in 1946-7.

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Polish refugees (oldest and youngest) brought to the UK by the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, c.1946 [MS 183/1006/1]

The archive (MS 183 section F) contains a great deal on the administration and organisation of CRREC’s work in the field of both the rescue and support of refugees, particularly child refugees, 1938-49.  For refugees brought over to Great Britain by the Council, for example, information can be found in the form of photographs, biographical profiles, correspondence and refugee fund assistance cards.  Landing cards and identity cards complement the block passport and other mass travel documents which exist for child refugees who travelled with the Council.

This collection is one of a number of archives relating to Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s – detailing both the work of organisations and providing individual or personal accounts. Other collections include the Polish Jewish Refugee Fund (MS 190); papers of Diana Silberstein, 1936-46, a native of Sarajevo, who came to Britain as a refugee (MS93) and a typescript autobiography of Dr D.Fuerst, a refugee dentist from Nazi Austria (MS116/68).

The world is currently experiencing the largest refugee crisis of recent times and questions surrounding asylum and immigration are more topical than ever.  These stories – some inspiring, other distressing – must serve to provide some lessons from history.  This is undeniably an important part of the history of the United Kingdom which should be preserved and remembered.

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