Refuge and fortress: a tale of two cultures


Refuge and fortress: a tale of two cultures

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Written by: Jeremy Seabrook


We publish below the talk by Jeremy Seabrook launching his new book on the struggles of newly arrived refugees commissioned by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA).

‘It has been a privilege to meet a new generation of academic refugees assisted by CARA. It needed great courage for many of them to speak publicly about the violence they experienced in their homeland. Some still live in fear of the vengeful arm of regimes that have a reach beyond their own border; they had to leave those they love in unsafe places, sad desertions of necessity.

The contribution of recent refugees to this country is less clear than that of an earlier time, when the tyranny of Hitler gave us Nicholas Pevsner, Max Born, Max Perutz, Ludwig Guttman, Otto Frisch, Ernst Gombrich, a rich legacy of intellect, creativity and humanity. Today’s refugees have yet to make their careers. There is no doubt we shall benefit from their talents, even though some had to overcome terrible obstacles to achieve the right to remain – official disbelief in their stories of persecution, public hostility and, for some, years in limbo (territory abandoned by the church, but swiftly annexed by secular society). They wait, sometimes interminably, for the opportunity to show their adoptive country what they can do for it.

I have learned a great deal about the places they come from, about the cruel ingenuity of dictators, juntas, and clerics, who have evolved formidable skills in suppressing voices that challenge orthodoxy. Academics are always in the front line when it comes to the dissemination of ideas and it is natural that tyrants should wish to prevent them from going about their work. But if I learned much about the politics of the sombre regimes they fled, I learned even more about my own country from their sometimes inspiring, sometimes desolate, narratives. We have such a contradictory and ambiguous response to the sufferings of others. Some see Britain as a uniquely tolerant and welcoming place of refuge, while others represent us as xenophobic and hostile to aliens (as they were, until recently, called).

Are we sympathetic to the pain of strangers or are we indifferent? We are both. Insularity and suspicion, yes. But there is also another Britain – a liberal, open-hearted country, aware of its privilege, eager to help those less favoured. Many will offer legal advice, support, shelter and comfort to those who have escaped persecution. One of the most touching stories was of a woman, a university lecturer, who, although dying of cancer, offered a home to an exiled Iraqi.

As a country we are, of course, capable of noble gestures – the Kindertransport, for example, the 70th anniversary of which is being commemorated this month, but we are also subject to sudden panics about foreigners, who, like a force of nature, threaten to flood, swamp or otherwise engulf us.

It sometimes seemed, when preparing the book, a tale of two cultures, if not two countries. Governments often use the alibi of “public opinion” as a reason for inaction. But public opinion is not a monolith; it is shifting and mutable. It can be changed. Of course, some will always see refugees (or their illegitimate cousins, bogus or failed asylum seekers) as opportunists who want to take advantage of our kindness and hospitality. But those who know that the reality is more complicated should say so.

Discussions of this issue echo those heard in the 1930s. Then, too, public opinion was constantly invoked as the greatest obstacle to opening our doors to Jewish refugees from Nazism. In 1943, when the extent of atrocities in central Europe could no longer be denied, that same “public opinion” refused to be enlisted in the noble cause of doing nothing. It mobilised itself, presented petitions to parliament, held demonstrations, and conducted a survey which showed that 78 per cent of the people of Britain supported help to persecuted Jews. The government responded by declaring that the best hope for the Jews lay in the defeat of Hitler. Recently, we saw a tribute to British officials and diplomats who, in the 1930s, in defiance of government policy, issued visas and papers to facilitate the escape of oppressed people. It is impossible not to wonder where are today’s contrarians to the citadels of oppression in the world. If they were to perform the same service for the persecuted, would they be rewarded or chastised for showing a surfeit of humanitarian zeal?

In the presence of brutal regimes worldwide (and almost half the world’s population live in non-democratic countries), it is surely wrong to be intimidated by campaigns in the popular press which claim that refugees and asylum seekers see in us “a soft touch.” Some friends here today bear scars, not only psychological, of the extremely heavy touch they have received from authority. We should declare unequivocally that without people from other cultures, civilisations and traditions, without the insights of the marginalised and the stranger, we would all be the poorer. When many of today’s refugees told their story of having been tortured or violated by their governments, it has been denied in the very place where they seek relief and shelter. There is, it seems, no mechanism for distinguishing between the abused and humiliated and mere “economic migrants”; although this is also a category that requires a sharper definition, for economic migrants are, in a way, refugees from globalisation (and where should they seek asylum?). Most of the people who have told their story have known suffering that surpasses anything most of us here can comprehend.

CARA has for seventy-five years, in one incarnation or another, represented the “other Britain”, that of tolerance, humanity and kindness. Whether or not this is the “real” Britain remains, so to speak, an academic issue.’

Related links

Council for Assisting Refugee Academics

Order The Refugee and the Fortress online here


The Refugee and the Fortress: Britain and the flight from tyranny, by Jeremy Seabrook is available from Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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