What Have Been The Effects?

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

Quite apart from the quantitative aspect, have the refugees who wish to stay here proved an asset or a liability? On the basis of the evidence which will be discussed in these pages, there is only one conclusion it is possible to draw. By and large refugees have proved a valuable element in our society: they have made contributions to our national life in industry, in the universities, in the arts and in the world of science. During the war they have acquitted themselves well.

Before the outbreak of war the majority of the refugees were not working, because they were not allowed to. They had been admitted on condition that they did not enter any kind of employment, paid or unpaid. Permits to work had only been granted to about 6,600 domestic servants (mainly women) and nurses and to a small number of professional workers, industrialists, technical experts and highly qualified skilled workers.

On the outbreak of war Germans and Austrians – about 80 per cent. of all refugees – were regarded as enemy aliens, and were consequently subject to severe restrictions. But after the investigation of every individual case before tribunals, practically all genuine refugees were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression and exempted from internment and some other restrictions. They were, however, offered little opportunity of taking part in the war effort.

At the end of November 1939 the Government, faced with a rapidly growing demand for labour, relaxed the rules concerning the employment of aliens. They could still not be employed in various key industries directly connected with the war effort, but foreigners, including friendly “enemy” aliens who had passed the tribunals, were allowed to register for work at employment exchanges. Labour permits were issued wherever work was available and there were no suitable British workers for the job.  In the prohibited employments an alien could only get work by first obtaining a permit from the Auxiliary War Services Department; relatively few such permits were issued to German and Austrian refugees. But 2,000 to 3,000 refugees found jobs every month after November 1939 and this absorption into employment continued at a growing speed until May 1940 when the situation changed once more.

The Government also decided in November 1939 to recruit refugees as volunteers into the unarmed battalions of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. This offer met with an immediate response, and refugee labour companies did useful work behind the lines of the B.E.F. until the collapse of France. At one crucial juncture their Commanding Officer, Col. Arthur Evans, M.P., decided to arm them on the spot. He told the House of Commons (July 10th, 1940) that “they conducted themselves in a manner worthy of the best traditions of the British Army.”

This process of absorption came to a sudden end in May 1940 during the invasion of Holland and Belgium. The Government found it necessary to reverse its whole policy; every refugee was for a time regarded as a potential fifth columnist. Between May and June most of the adult male refugees between sixteen and sixty and a considerable number of men and women over sixty were interned.

Italian nationals, most of whom were not refugees but had been residents over a period of years, were also interned. Severe new restrictions were imposed on those aliens who were not interned.

After the first shock, and under the pressure of public opinion, the Government realised the injustice and the wastage of goodwill and human resources implied in the new policy. White Papers published in July and August 1940 provided for the release of a great number of refugees. By December 1940 8,165 out of 27,615 internees (not all of whom were refugees) and by December 1942, nearly 20,000 internees had been released; at present internment is confined to a few exceptional cases (200-300 in all). Release of friendly enemy aliens was accompanied by the removal of many of the obstacles to the full participation of refugees in the war effort.

Recruitment for the Alien Pioneer Companies was resumed. Much later on, all units of the British Army, with the exception of the Royal Corps of Signals and the Chemical Warfare branch, were opened to aliens under certain conditions.[9] In consequence a considerable number of refugees succeeded in being transferred from the unarmed Pioneers to Field Units.

The new attitude of the Government to civil employment was illustrated by the following statement of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour (November 27th, 1941):

“The Government recognises that in the foreign population of this country we have a valuable addition to our man and woman power of which the most effective use should be made with the same wage standards and working conditions and the same social services as those which apply to British subjects doing the same work. Certain security safeguards are indispensable, such as a special permit for some kinds of work. Moreover, as in the case of British subjects, the employment which can be offered is not always of the kind to which the individual concerned has been accustomed. No genuinely friendly foreigner is debarred from getting a permit, and since the general measure of internment affected many who are entirely friendly to the Allied cause, there is no ground for regarding a man with suspicion on account of internment from which he has been released.”

The International Labour Branch

In order to promote the employment of foreign workers the Ministry of Labour set up an International Labour Branch in the autumn of 1940. In June 1941 it was empowered to undertake a special registration of foreign men between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five and of foreign women between the ages of sixteen and fifty.

Forty thousand five hundred and fifty Allied civilians (excluding Americans, Russians and Chinese) and 42,000 former German and Austrian nationals were registered under the International Labour Force Orders. Civilians of various other nationalities, e.g., Italian, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Rumanian and Japanese, who became liable to registration later, have to be added to this number. At present there are approximately 120,000 persons under the care of the International Labour Branch. Among Allied nationals there are about four times more men than women registered; of all the Germans and Austrians registered about 60 per cent. are women.

Every attempt has been made to ensure, in close co-operation with the Allied Governments and the refugee organisations, that the best use is made of the available skill and experience.  The International Labour Branch appealed to employers to take on foreigners wherever possible. Special employment exchanges were established in the London area for certain Allied nationals and for Germans and Austrians; these are now the main agencies for directing aliens into suitable employment. A substantial number of aliens were transferred from less to more essential war work.

Selected aliens were eventually admitted to the Government Training Centres. By September 1943 approximately 2,600 aliens, 1,500 of them of enemy nationality, had been trained for the engineering industries. “The great majority have not only responded well during training but have subsequently proved a valuable addition to our labour force.” [10]

Considerable progress has been made in utilising the services of aliens with special professional, technical or academic experience. By the Medical Register (Temporary Registration) Orders of 1941 Allied doctors – about 700 in all – were admitted to registration by the General Medical Council after selection for approved employment. They serve with the British and Allied Forces, with civil defence organisations, in hospitals and in public health services, but not in private practice, except as assistants. Evidence of similar progress in the employment of German and Austrian refugee doctors will be discussed below.

Shortly after registration 82.5 per cent. of the men and 60 per cent. of the women were in employment. Since 1941 it has been found possible to increase the opportunities open to aliens to engage in war work and the number who now remain unemployed is negligible. It included some who by reason of health, inability to speak English or inadaptability by reasons of previous occupation, are well nigh unemployable.[11] The consistent efforts made by the Ministry, by the various refugee organisations and by the aliens themselves have led to a considerable change-over from non-essential employment to war work. This is reflected in the not yet complete results of a sample inquiry recently undertaken by the International Labour Branch.   They show that of 11,432 men, 88 per cent. were in work of national importance or utility, 21 per cent. of the total had been transferred to work of greater importance, and only 12 per cent. were students or unavailable for transfer. Among 13,460 registered women whose cases had been examined 87 per cent. were doing work of national importance, and 13 per cent. were students or unavailable for transfer.

The German-Austrian labour force

Since the German and Austrian refugees form about three-quarters of those who want to stay here, their contribution to the war effort is of particular interest.

There were in 1943, 42,000 German and Austrian nationals registered with the German-Austrian Labour Exchange, about 40 per cent. of whom were men (16-65 years of age) and 60 per cent. women (16-50). There is no statistical evidence for all registrations; certain conclusions can nevertheless be drawn from a detailed scrutiny of a random sample consisting of 5,000 German and Austrian men’s registration cards. “It was found that nearly 3 per cent. were under eighteen years of age, approximately 18 per cent. between eighteen and thirty-five, and the remainder between thirty-six and sixty-five.”[12] This age structure is of course quite abnormal even if we allow for the fact that the figures do not include all those who have joined the Forces before registration date (estimated at 4,000-5,000). This abnormality must be due to the preference given by the immigration authorities to old persons and children.

All these refugees were seriously handicapped in finding jobs equal to their capabilities; they had to overcome prejudices; and they had to adapt themselves to unfamiliar environments – a process which is always difficult for elderly people. Bearing this in mind, the contribution of the German and Austrian refugees to the war effort, as reflected in the table below, can be considered by no means unsatisfactory. Practically all members of the Forces had joined up before the date of registration and are therefore not included.

Estimate of occupations of German and Austrian civilian refugees (Spring 1943).

1. Essential work and war service 63 per cent.
2. Unessential work 23 per cent.
3. Students 13 per cent.
4. Unemployed 11 per cent.
  1. Ten per cent. of those engaged in essential work were employers.
  2. Unessential work includes work of general utility, for example waiters, hotel cooks, skilled clerks, lawyers, journalists.
  3. A great number of the students have been transferred to essential work since the spring of 1943 or are serving in the Forces.
  4. Seventy-nine per cent. of the unemployed were in the age groups 46-65.   The rest were mainly persons recently released from internment or suffering from ill-health.

Striking changes have taken place in the occupational structure of the pre-war refugee population.   Clerks and merchants, commercial travellers and journalists, manufacturers and lawyers, are now working in the fields and factories. This shift from sedentary to manual occupation is of course most marked in-the younger age groups, but it often occurred also at an advanced age.[13] Barely 16 per cent. of the refugees were manual workers before they entered this country; not counting those in the Forces 38 per cent. are now in essential manual work. And a new generation is growing up which combines good education with experience at the bench, on a tractor or in the Armed Forces.

This occupational shift is reflected in the relatively large number of Jewish refugees employed in agriculture. In 1939 there were 2,561 refugees under the care of the Agricultural Committee of the Central Council of Jewish Refugees. Since then 326 have joined the forces, while 1,079 took up essential industrial work or nursing, volunteered for the mines or emigrated. The remaining 1,156 (25 per cent. women) are still engaged in agriculture. Most of them intend to emigrate to Palestine or to the Dominions as soon as circumstances permit.

For the older refugees, the transfer from intellectual to manual work may be only temporary. After the war most will not want, nor be able, to continue as manual workers. But it should be possible to make use of their former experience in suitable ways.

Generally speaking, considerable headway has been made in finding adequate employment for refugees with special qualifications.  But there have been great difficulties to overcome. Until recently, for instance, the placing of German refugee doctors had proved very slow. The Nazis, over a period of years, prevented as many as 10,000 “non-Aryan” doctors from practising in Germany; the British Government, recognising the high standard of the services most of them were able to render, was prepared in 1938 to allow 500 of them to practise in this country. Yet the British Medical Association succeeded in reducing the number to fifty, in spite of the inadequate number of doctors in certain parts of the country.[14] Dentists were in a similar position. In September 1939 there were among German and Austrian refugees, about 1,500 doctors and dentists; and in addition, there were 200 doctors from Czechoslovakia.[15] But in July 1940 only 460 foreign practitioners of all nationalities had Home Office permits to practise. The result was that a considerable number of highly qualified doctors had to leave this country in order to find work.

At present nearly all refugee doctors are for the time being allowed to do medical work in hospitals, or as assistants in private practice, and have – apart from some older doctors -found appropriate employment for the duration. There are, however, still some sixty qualified German refugee dentists who are excluded from work in their profession because the General Medical Council will not accept them for permanent registration and because there is no temporary register on which they can be included.

Such instances indicate that it may still be possible to make better use of the refugee labour force. But it can be said that in spite of inherent difficulties refugees have been successfully absorbed into war-time employment.

This economic absorption has had important social consequences. As long as, owing to the existing restrictions, most of the refugees had to lead a life of forced idleness, they mostly remained isolated from the native population and had little opportunity of becoming acquainted with the British way of life. Their actual war jobs, their membership of British Trade Unions, and their service in Civil Defence, have provided such opportunities and tended to remove mutual prejudices.

British ways of thought have in turn been influenced by the refugees. There can be no doubt that since 1933, and especially since 1939, Britain’s traditional insularity has decreased. The presence of enemy guns and enemy aerodromes across the Channel have played their grim part in jolting us out of our former attitude. And, less sensationally, the refugees, first in the homes of friendly British people, and since 1940 working in the factories and Forces, have helped to teach us anew how close are our links with Europe.

Refugee Industrialists

In 1939 there were in existence more than 400 factories established by refugees[16]; most of them had successfully overcome initial difficulties and were expanding. Notable amongst them were the various textile and auxiliary undertakings (manufacturing ladies’ dresses, mackintoshes, buttons, underclothing, Zipp fasteners), chemical and pharmaceutical works, and firms manufacturing toys and imitation jewellery.  The engineering, metallurgical, electrical and armament industries were well represented. Some of the industrialists, especially in the earlier years after 1933, were able to bring with them substantial amounts of capital and in some cases special machines not obtainable in this country.

The bulk of their production apparently replaced goods which were formerly imported or created new export markets for British goods. At present about 80 per cent. of the refugee factories are engaged on war work, but after the war they will certainly revert to their original purpose.

The manufacture of industrial diamonds, an industry new to Britain, owes much to the initiative of Belgian and Dutch refugees. In trying to transfer to London this vital industry, indispensable to the making of modern armaments and to precision engineering in general, these refugees were faced with a serious shortage of diamond cutters and tool makers. They then trained many British workers – some of them war invalidsžto cut industrial diamonds and to manufacture the special tools required to hold them.[17] There should be good post-war prospects for this new diamond industry.

About one-third of the factories established by refugees were in the Depressed Areas of South Wales, Tyneside and Scotland, particularly in the Treforest and Team Valley Trading Estates. These Trading Estates were established in order to attract light industries and so to provide a better balance of local employment opportunities. For these areas had depended almost entirely on coal mining, shipbuilding and other heavy industries catering for export markets which had contracted. Modern factories were built by the Government and offered for sale or rent on favourable terms; valuable privileges in respect of rates and public services were also accorded. These schemes attracted relatively few British but relatively many refugee industrialists. The personnel of these undertakings, apart from a few key men, was recruited from British workers; there were on an average 25 British workers for every -single alien worker. British men and women who had been unemployed for many years were retrained for the work.

The importance of these refugee industries for the post-war development of one of the former Depressed Areas has been stressed by the Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council. In its First Interim Report to the Minister without Portfolio (April 1944, H.M.S.O. 2s. 0d.), it was pointed out that “the commercial successes already achieved” (by the refugee firms in the Welsh Trading Estates) “despite all obstacles are remarkable…. A growing stream of goods of small volume and high value, particularly suitable for export, could be made available from this source in the post-war period”. The Committee urges the necessity of various constructive measures if these potentialities are to be realised in the form of actual export trades. Such measures include: an early restoration of premises which have been requisitioned for war purposes, the provision of rapid training facilities for additional workers and priority in the supply of raw materials and in the execution of the building work necessary for the extension of factories.

The Report continues: “We consider that these refugee firms have a particularly useful role to play in the rehabilitation of the devastated countries of Europe. Their intimate knowledge of the tastes and needs of consumers in Central Europe should be available for use in the preparation and execution of programmes for the production, in advance, of stocks of clothing and other essentials ready for immediate despatch to re-occupied territories.  We recommend that consideration be given to this by the Board of Trade and to the possibilities of placing now contingent orders for approved lines, production to commence at the earliest moment permitted by the general war situation. This would introduce an element of certainty into the post-war planning of these industrialists and strengthen their hands in negotiating the necessary post-war priorities.”

The contribution of refugee industrialists to the development of British industry is not confined to the setting up of new industries. Relatively few refugee industrialists were able to establish new firms. Permits were mainly granted for the production either of goods which hitherto had been imported from the Continent or of articles for export which British industry was not at the time equipped to make. Moreover in certain industries the large amounts of capital required prevented refugees from starting new enterprises. In such industries a number of refugees with special experience joined British firms as partners, technical specialists, production managers or export advisers. Their acquaintance with continental methods and their intimate knowledge of certain export markets often proved useful. Several refugee experts who had accumulated most valuable experience in the electrical and engineering industries, in the production of plastics and in the coal and fuel industries of Germany are now working with British concerns.

Merchants also succeeded in transferring to Britain export business which had formerly been centred in other countries. Britain benefited from the decline of Leipzig as an international fur market because refugees started as many as eighty new fur firms here with a capital of about £750,000 and an annual turnover of over £4 millions. In the same way some refugees brought with them a practical knowledge of foreign markets and, having moved their businesses to London, bought, according to the Home Secretary (February, 1939), “British instead of foreign goods for export to their customers.”

The decline in the volume of our export trade during the inter-war period was, it is now widely agreed, partly due to a lack of flexibility in the methods of our export manufacturers and merchants. It has been said that we relied too much on Britain’s deservedly high reputation for quality goods and that we did not study export markets with sufficient care: too often the customer was asked to accept what we had to sell rather than what he required. In this connection refugee exporters may in certain industries have a good deal to teach British traders.

The Home Secretary stated in the House of Commons in December, 1938, that whereas 11,000 refugees had been admitted in recent years, it was known that refugee employers had given direct employment to 15,000 British workers. This figure may have been an under-estimate: Sir John Hope Simpson, for instance, estimated the total number of British workers employed by German refugees in the autumn of 1938 at 25,000. A further substantial increase has taken place since 1938.

Refugee Contribution to Science and Arts.

“There is no reason”, said the Home Secretary in 1939, “why the world of thought should differ from the world of industry and why, as a result of wisely directed help to the refugee scholars, we should not help to make this country the intellectual centre of the world.” In practice it is difficult to measure the contributions made by refugee scholars and scientists. Great efforts have been made to provide jobs for university teachers by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning and other bodies. In addition, a number of scientists – some of them of world-wide reputation – found openings in this country without the assistance of this Society. Yet of eight refugee Nobel Prize-winners seven went to the United States.

In May, 1944, roughly 600 former university teachers who had come to Britain as refugees were registered with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. The table below indicates that the great majority had found suitable employment. About 11 per cent. were, it is true, unemployed or could not be traced. But most of the ‘unemployed’ are too old for paid positions or are in serious ill-health. Of those not traced most are allied nationals of whom many are employed by their own Governments.


Displaced from:

Austria 95 Italy 26
Belgium 3 Poland 64
Czechoslovakia 55 Portgual 1
France 15 Spain 15
Germany 308 Miscellaneous 13
Hungary 4 ___


Universities, Academic and Scientific Institutions, and Hospitals (Research) 244
Private Research, Private Teaching, Composition and Performance 29
Medical Practice and Health Services Practice 81
Industry, Commerce, Private Medical and Law Practice, Journalism and Government Training Schemes 79
Schools, Evening Schools and Technical Colleges 17
Government Posts – British and Allied 41
B.B.C. 14
Army 23
Unemployed, or Not Traced 71

It should be noted that at the present time many of those concerned are occupying temporary posts: e.g. school teachers who are temporarily replacing British teachers in the Forces; doctors who for the duration only are allowed to practice in hospitals or in partnership with a British doctor; assistant lecturers in universities; and those employed by Ministries on special war activities, or in the B.B.C. They should continue to be employed up to the limit of their capacities in peace-time.

The Prime Minister once said (August 20th, 1940) “Since the Germans drove the Jews out and lowered their technical standards, our science is definitely ahead of theirs”; he gave point to the fact that their loss was our gain. But the contribution of individual refugees before and during the war cannot yet be accurately assessed. It is known that four refugee scientists have been made Fellows of the Royal Society. It is known that many are engaged in secret government work. A good number of refugee scientists have been incorporated in special teams engaged on medical or other research; a refugee, Dr. Chain, was, for instance, engaged on penicillin research at Oxford as Professor Florey’s chief assistant. Among outstanding individual contributions by  refugee scholars that of Professor José Trueta can be mentioned: applying the knowledge he gained in the Spanish civil war, he has revolutionised the treatment of fractures.

The Warburg Institute, formerly in Hamburg, found a home in London after Hitler came to power. It is mainly devoted to the promotion of research on the survival and revival of classical influence in art, life and religion. This unique institute, with its library of 90,000 volumes, has since 1934 become a centre of research into Art History and has considerable influence through its publications and exhibitions. It is now being incorporated into London University.

The long-term effect of the work of refugee artists is still more difficult to evaluate. The centuries-old tradition that England always welcomed foreign artists – Handel, Mendelssohn and Sir Charles Halle are only three examples, in the one field of music, of aliens who once enriched British life – no longer held good. Nevertheless, refugee artists were able to make a substantial contribution to the arts in Britain. The high standard of Glyndebourne Opera was, for instance, due to the presence of refugee musicians; British architecture and design benefited from the break-up of the famous Bauhaus at Dessau and the Jooss Ballet became well-known in many British cities.


[9] Statement by the Secretary of State for War on April 22nd, 1943.

[10] The Minister of Labour, House of Commons, 23rd September, 1943.

[11] Minister of Labour, loc. cit.

[12] The Minister of Labour, op. cit.

[13] For instance 37 per cent. of the trainees in the Government training centres were over forty-five.

[14] D. F. Buxton, ‘The Economics of the Refugee Problem.’

[15] F. Lafitte, ‘The Internment of Aliens’.

[16] cf. ‘Refugees and Industry,’ C. C. Salway.

[17] ‘Diamonds Glitter in Industry.’ Imperial Review, March 1944.

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