"I want to be a refugee from Britain": inside the forgotten history of England's refugee camps

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 us

June 26, 2018
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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 of Britons occupied army camps.

These squatters referred to themselves as “refugees” from overcrowding. In fact, they took over camps intended for (or already occupied by) Polish refugees. In 1946, British ex-servicemen occupied a camp in Buckinghamshire that had been slated for Polish soldiers’ wives, and refused to vacate. Some of these squatters were families that councils had declined to place in houses, because they were seen as unsatisfactory tenants.

Refugee camps, then, could be places to stash British “problem families” along with bombed-out civilians and demobilized soldiers.

The squatters were openly rebelling against the state. But other citizens were sent to refugee camps on the state’s orders. In 1950, the Kelvedon Camp for Poles in Essex added a reception centre for British vagrants. Here, Poles and Britons shared spaces, clothing, meals, a warden, and other aspects of camp life.

Refugees and citizens could not be neatly divided into tragic victims and heroic saviours. At times, they were simply two populations in need. Was it so different to flee your home because of persecution and to lose your home because you were poor?

"They are meant for the English poor"

This was no rosy tale of multicultural harmony. Aid workers struggled to determine if refugees were like other groups that needed the state’s help. For some, refugees posed a threat to needy Britons. When the Jewish girls of Dovercourt picked berries on Rushall Common, the camp received an angry letter from local residents: “Will you please ask the girls not to eat the raspberries? They are meant for the English poor.”

On the other hand, the Anglo-Egyptians were imagined not as like the poor, but superior to them. The Home Office decided that the poor law was the wrong mechanism for helping former colonial elites, who had enjoyed a high standard of living. Many Anglo-Egyptians received generous compensation packages for the assets they had lost, far surpassing the emergency aid that other refugees (and poor Britons) received.

Us and them

Yet the contact between refugees and citizens, unsettling though it may have been, made it impossible for Britons to think of refugees only as different from themselves. It was, perhaps, easier for Britons to empathize with “foreign” refugees when many of them were living in hutted camps, experiencing mass feeding, and so on.

In those moments, citizens could see refugees as being like themselves: in temporary and extreme conditions of need. This is one of the most crucial lessons that Britain’s camps have to offer.

We might ask why, even as Britain’s history of refuge is celebrated, these camps are largely forgotten. The sense of shared experience between citizens and refugees—strongest during and immediately after the Second World War—largely disappeared by the later decades of the 20th century.

Today, aside from an odd plaque, there is little public memory of their existence. Perhaps the idea of encampment, tainted by the murderous history of totalitarian regimes, causes discomfort in the heart of liberal democracy.

But I suspect that another reason is that camps brought together people that our contemporary political discourse insists on keeping separate. Despite what we might like to tell ourselves, this is not simply a tale of British generosity towards desperate foreigners. In fact, these camps were never only for foreigners at all.

Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain is available now from Oxford University Press