The refugee crisis in Europe: should history drive the debate?

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Heartbreaking stories of the thousands of refugees crossing into Europe this summer sparked widespread demands that the UK government take more action to relieve the plight of those seeking asylum. A sense that future generations will judge critically how Europe reacts to the crisis has played heavily in debates about what the UK’s response should be.

In an interview with BBC Newsnight on 3 September Rabbi Lord Sacks stated that ‘Europe is being tested as it has not been tested since the Second World War’, and warned that some of the scenarios from that period were being ‘reenacted’ today. Lord Sacks’s reference to the need for a humanitarian gesture similar to Kindertransport, which brought nearly 10,000 Jewish refugee children to children during the Second World War, apparently hit home for David Cameron. Having previously held back from promising to take further refugees, Cameron announced on 7 September that the UK government would take four thousand refugees a year in a ‘modern equivalent of the Kindertransport scheme’. Cameron’s reference to the UK’s history of humanitarian responses to refugee crises has not been warmly received from all quarters. Scottish National Party MP George Kerevan has accused Cameron of sanitising history, suggesting that the hesitation of the pre-wartime government under Neville Chamberlain when faced with Jewish refugees was characterised by the same callousness, incompetence and borderline racism’ that he believes our present government has displayed.

Why, though, do such references to past action feature so heavily not just in arguments for, but justifications of, humanitarian action? Horrific images of a child washed-up on a beach, thousands sleeping on the streets of European cities, and tired toddlers simply giving up after hours of walking along desolate rail tracks are surely enough to demonstrate that some sort of humanitarian relief is a necessity. Yet the crisis is overwhelming, and a solution far from obvious. In this context, those with the responsibility for action are perhaps looking to history for reassurance that they are doing enough to convince future generations that they tried. The Kindertransport scheme saved many children from imprisonment, labour, and death under the Nazi regime, and this has been widely acknowledged in commemorations of it. In referring to this in explaining the UK government’s response to the current crisis, Cameron is applying a greater sense of certainty to the unknown. We cannot know whether what Europe’s governments are doing today will be enough to prevent further humanitarian disaster. What we can say is ‘we did something in the past, it helped people, so we should do it again’.

For critics of the UK government, such an appeal to history is potentially dangerous. The situation today is very different from that of the 1930s and 1940s, and there is little reason why our response should be the same. Furthermore, the fact remains that whilst Kindertransport saved children’s lives, there were many more who were not helped. An appeal to history could be interpreted as a sign of complacency, an indication that what we really care about is whether our grandchildren will think we did ok, rather than whether we have come up with the best solution for today.

Faced with an urgent crisis and the need for fast action, however, history is a tool that decision-makers need. There is no exact parallel to what is happening in Europe now, and to focus too much on specific episodes from the past may mislead us. But what history can provide is a bank of suggestions of what may work and what is likely to fail. And that is perhaps why, whilst it is the harrowing images of what is happening now that provoke us to action, it is to the past that we turn in desperation to tell us what to do.


Further reading:

  • Ed West, ‘Why don’t we launch a Kindertransport scheme for Syrians?’, The Spectator (blog), 1 September 2015.
  • John Field, ‘Jewish refugee children and a 1930s work camp’, The learning professor (blog), 11 September 2015.
  • Lyce Doucet, ‘Migrant crisis: why is it erupting now?’, BBC News Online, 13 September 2015.

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