How Many Were Admitted?

[This is Page Two, continued from Page One.]

Immigration into Britain was practically unrestricted during the whole of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century; at that time the average level of unemployment was low. But after the last war unemployment became more pronounced: this is the fundamental fact which coloured the whole of British official policy towards aliens in the last three decades.

The result, in general, was that aliens, seen as competitors with British workmen, were no longer welcomed.  The ensuing restrictive policy was greatly intensified when the Great Depression (1929-1933) produced mass unemployment on a scale hitherto unknown. The result was that the many thousands of victims of Nazi persecution who looked to Britain for refuge were confronted with barriers to immigration which only the fortunate few could scale.

The number of refugees admitted was therefore small. By December 1937 out of a total of 154,000 refugees from Nazi Germany only 5,500 had been admitted to Britain. The German occupation of Austria in March 1938, the cession of the Sudeten Areas in October 1938, the Jewish pogroms in Germany in November 1938 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 increased the number seeking refuge; and these events also led to a less restrictive policy. Even so, admissions were only granted when the authorities were satisfied that a particular refugee was of independent means, or that his support was guaranteed by private persons or charity organisations, or that a labour permit could be granted without prejudice to the employment of British labour. The main categories for admission were:

(i)                 transit emigrants with definite plans for further emigration within two years and sufficient guarantee for their support during their residence in this country;

(ii)             children under sixteen, usually to be prepared for re-emigration under the care of various charitable organisations;

(iii)          persons aged 16-35, to be trained under the auspices of recognised organisations;

(iv)             persons over sixty with independent means or guarantees.

Apart from these groups only domestic servants, nurses, a number of agricultural workers, scientists and industrialists were able to gain admission by showing that they would not compete on the labour market with British subjects.

Even at the outbreak of war there were only 55,000 adult and 18,000 juvenile refugees from Germany and Austria;  of these about 90 per cent. were Jews. Most of these were only temporarily admitted pending resettlement. In addition there were at the same time some 10,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia, 4,000-5,000 from Poland, and 2,000 from Spain, Italy and other countries. There could not have been more than 90,000 refugees in all when the Nazis marched into Poland.

A second consequence was that many of the refugees were either very young or old; those who were either too young or too old for work could not well compete with British workmen.  It is estimated that of the 73,000 Germans and Austrians 25 per cent. were children under sixteen and about 35 per cent. over fifty years of age. Amongst the adults, the percentage of women (many were domestic servants) amounted to 57 per cent.

A third consequence was that the social and occupational composition of refugees in Britain differed in various respects from that of German refugees in general, as tabled below. Many of the refugees – many at least of the Germans and Austrians – were either wealthy or had international connections, and merchants, manufacturers, scientists and professional men were therefore strongly represented. Since labour permits for domestic service were comparatively easy to obtain, the number of refugees in this category was also high; most of these were women, but former lawyers, civil servants and doctors were also trained as men servants.

Occupations of refugees on leaving Germany (1937)

Occupation Men % Women % Total %
1. Independent businessmen 37.4 1.5 21.8
2. Craftsmen 10.2 2.3 6.5
3. Clerical workers 8.6 6.2 7.5
4. Unskilled 1.3 0.3 0.8
5. Employees engaged in housework 0.1 6.4 3.0
6. Shop assistants 0.7 0.4
7. Doctors 1.8 1.1
8. Other professions and artists 5.8 3.0 4.4
9. Farming 5.5 1.1 3.4
10. Children, school  children, students 13.6 13.2 13.0
11. Married women without occupation 40.7 18.7
12. Others without occupation 6.9 19.6 12.7
13. No particulars 8.1 5.4 6.7
_____ _____ _____
100.0 100.0 100.0

The use which has been made of this potential addition to our labour supply will be examined in the second part of this pamphlet.

Changes during the war

The war brought almost to a standstill the movement of refugees from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The numbers of refugees from these countries has also contracted markedly during the war for three reasons:

(i)                 Natural loss. The death rate among refugees has probably been relatively high owing to the large percentage of old persons among them and to their previous sufferings and ill-treatment. Deaths would account for an annual decrease of about 800 persons or about 3,200 during the four years of war, if the British death rate is applied to the refugee population. The loss through deaths has not been made good by gain through births, since British nationality is always acquired by those born in Britain whatever the nationality of their parents.

(ii)             Emigration. Between 1940 and 1943 about 11,000 refugees emigrated from this country. Most of them were holders of U.S. immigration visas, who had waited in this country until their quota numbers entitled them to enter the United States.

(iii)          Internment overseas. In June and July 1940 7,664 alien internees were transferred to Canada and Australia, the majority of them refugees. They have mostly been released by now but not all of them have returned to Britain. Three thousand five hundred are still in Canada and Australia.

In spite of these losses the war years brought a considerable increase in the number of adult refugees of all nationalities.

(i)                 As mentioned before, there were, at the outbreak of war, about 18,000 child refugees under sixteen in this country. About 6,000 of them have reached the age of sixteen in the meantime and must therefore be included in the number of adult refugees.

(ii)             War-time refugee immigration to Great Britain was negligible until the invasion of Norway. But 1940 brought new waves of refugees. The Prime Minister has recently given particulars about the numbers involved. “Since the outbreak of war,” he said, “there have been the following admissions of aliens who came as refugees from enemy and enemy occupied countries, namely: in 1940 about 35,000, in 1941 more than 13,000, and in 1942 over 15,000. The total number of these refugees in the three years 1940-42 thus amounted to more than 63,000. This total includes about 20,000 seamen, but it is exclusive of the very large numbers who have come as members of the Allied Forces. If all children who came with their parents were allowed for, the total of refugees who were here at the beginning of the war or who have come here since is approximately 150,000.”[5] This estimate of 150,000 obviously does not allow for those who have left or died since the beginning of the war. Such allowance is made in our following estimate, made in the Summer of 1943.

Civilian refugees in Britain, Summer, 1943

Belgians 15,000
French 12,000
Norwegians 10,000
Czechoslovaks 10,000
Poles 8,000
Danes 3,000
Greeks 2,000
Jugoslavs 230
Luxemburgers 200
Germans 35,000
Austrians 15,000
Allied Seamen 20,000
Various 2,000

A very considerable number of these 140,000 persons, who had been admitted as civilians, joined the British or Allied Forces soon after their arrival.

More recent information was given by Mr. Morrison in the House of Commons on April 4th, 1944. About 10,000 refugees of alien nationality (consisting mainly of volunteers for the Allied Forces) were admitted in 1943. Taking into account these additions and losses through emigration, transfer of internees to the Dominions, deaths and acquisition of British nationality by marriage, the Home Secretary arrives at the following conclusion: “The best estimate that can at present be made is that the total of civilian refugees (men, women and children) at present in this country is in the neighbourhood of 120,000 of whom some 20,000 are merchant seamen.”


[5] The Prime Minister in the House of Commons, April 7th, 1943. According to a statement in the House on December 9th, 1943, the number of alien seamen “who are largely nationals of the Allied Powers in Europe amounted to 27.000.”

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