Refugees in Post-War Britain

[This is Page Five, continued from Pages Four, Three, Two and One.]

The record of the refugees in Britain before and during the war clearly suggests that they have been an asset to this country in some of the most critical years in its history. Are there any reasons why they should be less valuable and less welcome after the war?

Will they displace Englishmen from employment? On the contrary, past experience has shown that refugees actually created employment. Although fear of aggravating British unemployment was at the root of official policy before the war it is certain that refugees helped to raise the general level of employment by transferring purchasing power to this country or by taking paid jobs which could not be filled by any British person; where they lived on charity they spent at least some money which would otherwise have been retained as savings: and as employers they created direct employment. They are likely to have the same effect after the war, especially in connection with our efforts to regain and expand our foreign trade. The pioneer work of refugee industrialists and technical experts in establishing light industries in the former Depressed Areas must be carried on after the war.

If Britain enjoys full employment after the war, and there is unanimity on this as an aim of post-war policy, there should be no refugee problem as we knew it before the war. In this case we should need all the labour that could be found.

Those of advanced age may experience difficulties in finding or keeping their jobs, unless they have special qualifications. But they will depend to a much lesser extent on charity or public assistance than before the war; there will in most cases be younger members of the family or friends able and willing to support them if this should prove necessary.

Many refugees should be highly useful in the period of post-war reconstruction. As recent Parliamentary debates have shown there will for some years be a serious shortage of doctors, dentists and teachersža shortage which is likely to hold-up important social reforms. It would certainly be unwise to aggravate the shortage by depriving refugees in these occupations of their jobs.

The Times said (April 3, 1942):

“Spectacular services have been rendered in the past to British industry and British science by aliens who have sought a refuge and a permanent home in this country. Nothing warrants the supposition that Britain can afford to deprive herself of such services in the future.”

The quid pro quo.

But it would not be fair to retain any number of refugees in this country unless they are given the opportunity of becoming British subjects. It would not be just to leave these people without full civic rights. After their past experience it is unlikely that in these circumstances the most valuable members of our alien population would be prepared to stay. They can only be expected to identify themselves with Britain if they have a fair chance of sharing both the rights and the obligations of the British people.

The law is that British citizenship may be granted to an alien applicant if he is of good character, has resided in His Majesty’s dominions for at least five years, has an adequate knowledge of the English language and wants to reside in His Majesty’s dominions or to enter the service of the Crown.[18] Since all the pre-war refugees will soon have been in this country for more than five years they will in due course be eligible for naturalisation. It has been administrative practice for many years to consider only applications which are sponsored by four British-born householders. Since the distant days of May, 1940, the work of examining and dealing with applications for naturalisation has been suspended except in a few exceptional cases, so that a backlog of thousands of applications will have accumulated by the end of the war.   During the last three years exceptions were made in only fifty cases, mainly persons in important Government positions.[19]

This policy has undoubtedly caused hardship, for example to refugees in the British Forces. In so far as they have acquitted themselves well they surely have a moral claim to British citizenship.[20]  But so far they have received no assurance that their claims will be considered after the war with due despatch.  Those who joined the Forces soon after their admission to this country may be unable to find four British-born sponsors. In such cases good conduct and recommendation by the commanding officer should be sufficient. Such a procedure would require no alteration of the Naturalisation Act. Applications could be dealt with at once without involving the Home Office in too much burdensome administrative work.

At present the Minister decides, at his own discretion, whether a refugee will be granted naturalisation, allowed to stay here on sufferance, or compelled to leave the country. He is not given the reasons for an unfavourable decision and has no opportunity to appeal if he or his sponsors feel that he has not been given a fair deal. Many refugees may believe that citizenship and legal security will be granted to those able to comply with the requirements of the Naturalisation Act, but many more are likely to be less optimistic. No refugee can be certain that good character, good conduct or any creditable achievement will be rewarded by the grant of naturalisation. Without citizenship they remain outsiders and without legal security. Those who feel confident of being welcomed as future citizens in the U.S. or elsewhere can hardly be blamed if they prefer re-emigration to being a stateless alien. It is easy to see that such re-emigration would be detrimental to Britain. Those who would have made the best citizens would be the first to leave and the first to be admitted to the United States; while those who have less regard for the community’s welfare would probably have less objection to their inferior status. Two measures would greatly help to remove these misgivings.

  1. The provision of opportunity for reconsideration of unfavourable decisions.   Aliens have taken their share in the war effort. If they have done so they can clearly claim that the decision upon their future should not be left in any degree to the hazards of administrative practice or to sudden changes in the political atmosphere. If their application is rejected they should be told why and given an opportunity of putting their cases before a tribunal.
  2. A statement of post-war aliens policy would also give great encouragement. The Prime Minister, the present Home Secretary and his predecessor, the Minister of Labour and other members of the Government, have indicated on various occasions that they fully appreciate the valuable work of the refugees before and during the war.  This attitude is not only reflected in their statements in the House, some of which have been quoted in this pamphlet: it is also shown in their policy. Since internees were released, refugees have been able to take an ever bigger part in the war effort: most of the restrictions have been removed. It would be fitting to endorse appreciation with a statement of the Government’s post-war aliens policy.

The conclusion is that refugees are likely to be an asset in post-war Britain and that there can be no conflict of interest between the British people as a whole and the refugees who want to stay here. But it must be realised that only if refugees are given a fair chance shall we enjoy the full benefit of the services they are able to render to the community.

Published for PEP (Political & Economic Planning) by EUROPA PUBLICATIONS LIMITED, 39 BEDFORD SQUARE, W.C.1


Sir John Hope Simpson. “The Refugee Problem.” Oxford University Press, 1939. 25s.

Sir John Hope Simpson. “The Refugee Question.” Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs. No. 13. 3d.

Sir Norman Angell and D. F. Buxton. “You and the Refugee.” Penguin Special, 1939. 9d.

Lafitte. “The Internment of Aliens.” Penguin Special, 1940. 9d.

C. Salway. “Refugees in Industry.” Williams & Norgate, London. 1s.

S. Walshaw. “Migration to and from the British Isles.” Jonathan Cape, 1941. 5s.

[18] British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914.

[19] The Home Secretary in the House on September 23rd, 1943.

[20] Aliens in the U.S. Forces are automatically naturalised after three months of service.

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