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The Refuge and the Fortress, By Jeremy Seabrook
A gut-wrenching view of the changing face of refugee Britain
Tuesday 02 December 2008
This well-researched book marks the 75th anniversary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). It charts British reactions to refugees, from 1915, when passports were required, to the present. While the emphasis is on fugitive scholars, a broader insight is given into those seeking asylum here.
Most of the historical background is devoted to academics escaping Nazi persecution, including Gombrich, Freud, Einstein, Popper and Pevsner. Jeremy Seabrook makes the point that Hitler's loss was Britain's and the Americas' intellectual gain. As well as focusing on Jewish immigrants, he reminds us of complex cases, the most extraordinary being that of the Communist Klaus Fuchs, a gentile who found refuge here but later gave the Soviets details on the hydrogen bomb.
Seabrook captures the miserable atmosphere of pre-war and wartime Britain and the indifference of most people, but also records acts of kindness that alleviated feelings of estrangement. He reveals the two faces of Britain: one officially hostile to immigrants, and one that welcomes the individual. Although he is implicitly critical of the government's unwillingness to allow entry to all who applied during the Hitler years, he shows how Cara, the Quakers and others bent the rules to facilitate entry.
Disappointingly, there is no critique of the White Paper that limited Jewish entry into Palestine under the British Mandate. Ernest Bevin's draconian decision resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in the Nazi death industry. Apart from this convenient amnesia, there are fascinating connections that link the saving of top brains from Nazi Europe to the next wave of refugees.
Salvadore Allende's Chile gave hope for the country's intellectuals, but the US-backed murder of democracy by Pinochet in 1973 resulted in wide-scale torture. Linking the l930s to the l970s, Seabrook describes Helen Bamber's journey, from helping those who came out of Belsen to aiding those who survived Pinochet's terrorism.
Testimony from those tortured worldwide gives a modern, often gut-wrenching view of asylum-seeking. This is a stimulating book that should be read by all who mask the truth behind sensationalist headlines.
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