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Britain’s response to WWII child refugees puts modern society to shame

Teenage migrants arrive in the UK, seeking safety and yet are surrounded by a new society’s suspicion. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Picture a refugee child, and you probably think of a very young girl or boy. You may be haunted by the images of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, whose tiny lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. You might think of a grubby face streaked with tears, or little hands clutching a broken toy, as so often seen in charities’ promotional literature.

What you likely won’t think of is a teenager, aged by the stress and hardship of war, navigating the trials of adolescence while desperately seeking safety in a world they barely know.

Despite what we may assume, child refugees are not necessarily small children. Cecil Beaton/Imperial War Museum

Both historically and now, the child refugees who reach British shores have tended to be teenage boys – a fact that recently has shocked many. Despite the differences between past and present conflicts, the experiences of adolescent refugees over time can be harrowingly similar. And yet, the child refugees who came to Britain after World War II were given a much better welcome than those reaching British shores now.

In 1945, Jewish aid organisations persuaded the reluctant Home Office to take in child concentration camp survivors. The British public – shocked by images of Bergen Belsen concentration camp widely circulated in the press – generally supported the idea. Offering a safe haven to child survivors of such an atrocity fitted in with Britain’s post-war self-image as a right-minded liberator and victor.

A new home

And so aid workers were sent to locate a thousand needy child survivors amid the hastily-created displaced person camps on the continent. Only 732 were found who wanted to come to Britain. The night before their arrival, aid workers at the reception camp in Windermere went around placing clothing, dolls and teddy bears on the beds. They were shocked into silence the next day when the little ones they had been expecting to arrive by RAF plane turned out to be mostly teenage boys. Less than 25 of the children were under ten years old, and only about 80 were girls. Many of the children looked far older than they actually were.

That this was a surprise shows just how little the aid workers understood about the world that these children had come from. There were young children to be found in Auschwitz, Belsen, Theresienstadt and other camps, but they were very few in number. The vast majority of children under ten sent to concentration camps by the Nazis and their allies were murdered upon arrival. Older girls, trying to care for younger siblings, were often killed with them. But a savvy boy, who was astute enough to lie about his age, might have been able to enter the camp as a worker, and so stood a better chance – if still a very slim one – of survival.

Overcoming concerns

In 1945 as now, the children who arrived as refugees often looked older than their years. Aid workers then commented that child survivors of the camps often looked like old men and women. And this is little wonder: they had endured months, sometimes years, of starvation, disease, torture and trauma. Their youthful appearance did come back, eventually, but it took a very long time.

Although they were generally welcomed, these child survivors of the Holocaust provoked a certain amount of anxiety on the part of their care workers. Adults worried that the “boys” (as the children called themselves) had been fundamentally “de-normalised” by their time in the camps, that they had no moral training, and that they might even be dangerous.

Sir Leonard Montefiore, one of a triumvirate of British Jewish leaders who orchestrated the arrival and rehabilitation of the 732 child survivors, wrote in 1947 that the children had emerged from the camps “abnormal in some way or another”.

He added, “To lads who have successfully bamboozled and deceived the SS and the Camp Commandant, to hoodwink a Jewish Committee and its Welfare Office must seem mere child’s play.”

To their enormous credit, care workers in 1945 acknowledged their own fears, and were determined to rescue the children (both physically and morally) with the best possible care. The media, for its part, was unanimously sympathetic towards the orphans. Archives show that all the major British newspapers, and many local papers, ran articles welcoming “the children who had known no childhoods”, and celebrated their return to life in a Britain that was itself rebounding from the trauma of war.

Aemal Khan, one of the first child migrants to arrive in the UK in 2016, is just 14. Jonathan Brady PA Wire/PA Images

How different for child refugees now. They face a toxic environment, with a suspicious public, an inflammatory, anti-refugee right-wing media, and politicians who are anything but sympathetic.

In 1945, the “boys” who came to Britain were settled into purpose-made hostels and care homes. Now, many child refugees end up in detention centres that are effectively prisons. The welcome we gave child refugees in 1945 was not perfect, but we should be utterly ashamed of the welcome we give child refugees now.

Yes, most child refugees have been and are still adolescent boys. And we should be honest in acknowledging that we are sometimes afraid or have concerns about this. But above all, we should do everything in our power to help them, just as we did after World War II.

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