Political notes: British duty to the dispossessed

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The Independent Culture
TODAY, BRITAIN stands at a crucial stage in its refugee policy. Will it turn inwards as we enter the new millennium, becoming an integral part of the increasingly impenetrable wall of "Fortress Europe"? Or will it continue to honour, beyond mere lip service and tokenism its tradition of asylum which remains integral to its myth of fairness and tolerance? Before the Kosovo crisis, the signs were not good. Opinion polls revealed a decreasing commitment to refugee entry, from 75 per cent, in February 1997 to 49 per cent two years later, even for those regarded as "genuine".

Yet, since the Nato action began, the situation has changed markedly. Refugees have been placed on the inter-national agenda in a positive way for the first time in years, and the British government has slowly responded to domestic and foreign pressure to open its doors to the victims of "ethnic cleansing".

Taking the century as a whole, however, it is apparent that sympathy for refugees has waxed and waned, sometimes at great speed. The 1920s and early 1930s were years of virulent, often racist, anti-alienism whereas the late 1930s witnessed state and popular demand, partly realised, to help the victims of Nazi persecution. In turn, this commitment disappeared again during the Second World War and immediately after when the British government deliberately excluded anything other than a trickle of Holocaust survivors to enter the country.

Many who came during the Nazi era travelled on dubious documentation, and this was even more the case for their Jewish refugee predecessors escaping Tsarist oppression at the turn of the century. Nowadays the refugees from the 1900s and the 1930s are seen as classic refugees whose genuine status is contestable. This acceptance, however, was not the case at the time and many wanted to reject them as undesirable "aliens".

Local governments over the past century, and a host of grassroots organisations, have helped integrate refugees from across the world. There have been up to 10,000 local and national refugee bodies in Britain alone in the 20th century, yet they have been hardly recognised by politicians, historians, or others. It has been ordinary people in Britain who, given the chance, have looked after those who have lost everything, and this is why the Government has delegated the care of the Kosovar refugees to local authorities and local bodies in what they hope will be a textbook operation.

We need to take heart from the majority of the British population who in principle and practice have helped those suffering first hand the terrors of 20th-century persecution. Their humanitarianism can be recognised in no better way than meeting the challenges of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees in a positive spirit, rather than avoiding its responsibilities by finding legal loopholes or in helping small groups of refugees at the expense of others as is happening today with the Kosovans. This is not to deny the Kosovans positive treatment, but to suggest that all those seeking asylum should be treated with sympathy, professionalism and respect.

Refugees show us the inseparable bonds that exist between local, national and global responsibilities; we must not forget that, whether they stay in their place of asylum or attempt to return, they will probably never feel fully at home. In essence it is an experience of loss and trauma and ultimately it is essential to stop the root causes that have led to the escalation of refugee movements, larger now than at any time in world history. Meanwhile we have a duty to the disposses-sed to offer them asylum. Our mean-spirited responses are shamed by some of the poorest countries in the world - for example Albania and Ethiopia, who have taken in without questioning hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Tony Kushner is joint author with Katharine Knox of `Refugees in an Age of Asylum: global, national and local perspectives during the twentieth century' (Frank Cass, pounds 47.50/pounds 22.50)