Today, aside from an odd plaque, there is little public memory of Britain's refugee camps. But their complex, multi-cultural history has much to teach usby Jordanna Bailkin / June 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Today, very few people think of Britain as a land of camps. Instead, camps seem to happen elsewhere—from Greece to Palestine, or across the global south.
Yet during the 20th century, there were dozens of camps in Britain, which housed tens of thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese.
The camps jumbled together those who fled the crises of war and empire: Hungarians and Anglo-Egyptians competed for spaces when they disembarked in 1956, victims of, respectively, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nasser’s expulsion of British subjects from Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Ugandan Asians arrived in 1972 to find Poles still encamped from three decades earlier.
The relationship between these refugees and British citizens was complicated by the imperial past. Many “refugees” in Britain were actually British subjects, who might (or might not) think of themselves as having come home. The Ugandan Asians and the Anglo-Egyptians, for instance, were British subjects; the Poles were offered citizenship shortly after their arrival due to their military service during the Second World War.
In Britain, it was possible to be a refugee and a citizen at the same time. For this reason, many people in flight to Britain rejected the refugee label, preferring to be known as “evacuees.” Even for those willing to be called refugees, this designation had a time limit. People could easily be reclassified as paupers, squatters, or ordinary migrants. No one was a refugee forever.
A refugee from Britain
Could Britons be “refugees”? Some certainly thought so. In 1946, the BBC broadcast a popular song called, “I’d Like to Be a Refugee from Britain.”
In an alarming new era of queuing, rationing, and higher taxes, the song predicted a mass exodus: “I want to be a refugee from Britain/ The place where I’m no longer free;/ If they can carry on without Winston Churchill/ They will blooming well have to carry on without me!” The language of being a refugee offered a way for Britons to make sense of their own experiences of alienation.
For others, the kinship of refugees and citizens was more than metaphorical. During the Second World War, millions of British homes were damaged or destroyed; many others fell to slum clearance. In a desperate response to the ensuing housing crisis, tens of thousands…