Supporting refugees: then and now

I was recently asked by the British Association for Jewish Studies to write a piece for their newsletter on my dissertation and what I have been up to since graduation. Having pursued interests in the historical and literary representations of gender, culture, social action and the Holocaust throughout my degree, my final year research focused on the ways in which women in Britain supported Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. What follows is a summary of my findings and some thoughts on the current refugee crisis.

Through analysis of primary and secondary sources, I found that women in Britain actively responded – nationally and locally – to the crisis affecting Jewish refugees from Nazism in Europe. Between 1933 and 1945, women were vital to the various bodies working in aid of Jewish refugees. This was true across voluntary organisations of Jewish, Christian and secular orientation. Significantly, some women acted from positions of leadership, but the majority carried out important work from lower-ranking positions as secretaries or volunteers meeting refugees. It is important that we recognise this contribution as well as paying attention to better known national activity by prominent female figures, such as the campaigning work of Eleanor Rathbone.

As was the case nationally, women acting in local areas around Britain responded on an individual and communal basis. In many cases, support was highly personal, with women and their families inviting refugees into their homes, particularly as the crisis worsened from 1938 onwards. Collaborative action was also important, as women worked with others to fundraise, run hostels and provide refugees with an education. Class was often a significant factor in determining such involvement: those without the privilege of women such as Elaine Blond, or the national standing of Eleanor Rathbone, responded within their means. This was arguably easier for middle-class women (due to their additional income, space in the home, and, perhaps, time on their hands), although women from working-class backgrounds also provided support. Despite varied involvement across social groups, it was largely educated women who responded to the refugee cause – through roles in local teaching and national politics, for instance. To this extent, women’s responses were partially determined by their positions in and outside of the home.

However, common to the majority of women’s responses at both a national and local level was a humanitarian motivation to help those in need. While this was not exclusively gendered, women’s support of refugees was closely aligned with their personal, emotive reactions to the crisis – unlike the British response at a policy level, which has received negative historiographical attention. The diverse range of activities I came across highlighted that women were positively and actively involved with this issue during the 1930s and 1940s. An analysis of this kind had not been widely attempted before, so I hope that my research has added to the recent scholarship aiming to redress the gender imbalance in work on this topic to date. Still, there is room for further consideration of the subject, particularly in local areas beyond the time period I examined.

Now, we are again facing a global refugee crisis and unstable political situation. A recent study found that ‘[n]early 5 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, yet Britons believe the figure to be closer to 300,000’. Given such a discrepancy between reality and the UK population’s perception, I wonder how the period we are living in will be looked back upon. If 5 million (or even 500) people from the UK were in the same circumstances as refugees from Syria, I bet those who bought into UKIP’s EU referendum shock tactics (see the Breaking Point poster) would want support from other countries. We need to remember that these refugees are people with families, hopes and a need for security. As Melissa Fleming from UNHCR said at Emerge last autumn, ‘no refugee would be on those boats – those dangerous boats – if they could thrive where they are’.

Thankfully, we are also seeing positive responses to the crisis. The Refugees Welcome rallies and surge in donations to humanitarian charities, alongside the growth of grassroots efforts to support refugees in the UK and the Calais migrant camp, prove that empathy and constructive action still exist. Sadly, advocating for this action in a political climate tainted with the Vote Leave campaign’s anti-immigration stance led to the murder of MP Jo Cox. Like Eleanor Rathbone last century, Jo Cox should be remembered for her outstanding campaigning and policy work in support of refugees. For Jo and the millions of people trying to escape conflict, we must carry this on.

So, whatever your gender identity or religious background, keep speaking up, signing petitions, attending rallies, donating to humanitarian charities and volunteering with support centres. Nationally and internationally, we are facing challenging times, but it is those fleeing persecution who are affected most. We must not let those in power (whoever that may be in six months’ time) forget about those in need.