British child refugees

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Refugee Week, founded in 1998 "as a direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers", is marking its 20th anniversary this week, and one of the 20 Simple Acts they have asked people to consider doing this year is spread the word. Sadly the hostility that inspired this campaign in 1998 is still present and their work is as important as ever. I believe that it is harder to be hostile towards someone once we begin to empathise with them, and as human beings we often empathise most easily with people when we realise they are like ourselves.

In keeping with that idea I want to talk about Britain’s own child refugees. In 1940, having watched Nazi forces sweep across continental Europe, Britain was living under the threat of invasion and increasingly severe bombing. Parents naturally wanted their children to be safe, and I suspect most people are aware of the evacuation schemes that took British children from the cities and out into the countryside. However there was another, riskier, scheme, designed to get children away from danger altogether. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), planned to send children to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, where people had volunteered to care for them. If the promise of escape from war to a better life was tempting though, it was at the cost of a dangerous journey with the threat of the German U-Boat campaign.

The children faced this risk without their parents, as their families could not accompany them. Having had to weigh up the odds, in what had to have been one of the worst decisions anyone could have to make, thousands of parents signed their children up. The risks from the U-boats and the difficulties of separation were, for many, preferable to the risks of bombing and invasion. In 2014 I started researching a CORB ship called the City of Benares in preparation for an online exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of its sinking. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic 600 miles from land, late at night, in dreadful weather. The story that unfolds from there is harrowing. There were 90 evacuee children on board; only 13 of them would survive. These children were known as ‘Seavacs’ but make no mistake we could equally well term them refugees. They were children fleeing bombing and the threat of invasion in the hope of building a better life somewhere safer.

There were adult refugees on board too from continental Europe. Bohdan Nagorski had escaped from the German bombardment of Poland. Emma and Hirsch Guggenheim, an elderly Dutch Jewish couple, were fleeing Nazi persecution. Rudolf Olden was a Jewish pacifist and human rights advocate hounded out of Germany as early as 1934, only to find himself interned along with his wife Ika by the British on the outbreak of war. These are just a few of the stories of the adults on board, many of whom also perished. Heart-breaking as their stories are though, it is the children that inevitably tug on our emotions. Children who survived while their siblings did not, a family of five brothers and sisters all lost, children as young as five years old slowly dying of exposure in waterlogged lifeboats as rescue steamed towards them unable to reach them in time. The issue of refugees and their treatment is an old one, dating back far before the CORB scheme, and still a huge issue around the world today.

In 2015, 75 years after the loss of the City of Benares and subsequent ending of CORB’s overseas evacuations, Europe saw its biggest influx of refugees since the Second World War. At this time the media was full of the Syrian refugee crisis and equally full of people who had begun to view refugees not as fellow human beings in need of help but almost as an invading threat. One of the great things I believe history can do is put a human face on events. Perhaps instead of being frightened by fleeing people we could all take a moment to picture those on board the City of Benares. Small children from Liverpool/London/Sunderland and other British cities, elderly couples fleeing for their lives, a pacifist critic of Hitler seeking safety for himself and his wife. Most of these people never found the refuge they were seeking. However thousands of others did find safety.

The CORB scheme alone successfully sent more than 2,000 British children overseas before it ended. The City of Benares has been particularly on my mind lately as I recently met with American author, Deborah Heiligman, as she conducted research for a new book she is writing about the sinking, aimed at young people. One of the things that came up in our discussion was the parallels between these CORB children and today’s child refugees. If there is one thing I’d hope the sinking of the City of Benares could teach us today it is that refugees can be anyone. They could be our families, our partners, our children, even us; all it takes is finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lead image: Memorial mural showing CORB children and their escort in a lifeboat from City of Benares. Copyright The Parish Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb.