We must learn from ‘Generation Welcome’ - Refugee Council
June 17, 2014

We must learn from ‘Generation Welcome’

Victor de Waal originally came to the UK as a child refugee in 1939 when his family were forced to flee the Nazis. He later attended Cambridge University before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1976. Victor now works at the Islington Refugee Centre.

Here he reflects on the findings of Refugee Week’s new poll which reveals first time voters are extremely welcoming towards refugees.

New research conducted for Refugee Week and published today has revealed a remarkable story; despite vehement anti immigration rhetoric exposed by some politicians and sections of the media; the general public remain extremely welcoming towards refugees.

In particular, first time voters are ‘Generation Welcome’ with nearly eight out of ten (79%) proud of Britain’s tradition of protecting refugees and three quarters (76%) wanting Britain to keep up its role of offering a safe place for people – especially children – fleeing violence, war and persecution.

This is extremely encouraging news. My own family fled to the UK 1939 when I was a young boy. Like so many others, we were refugees escaping the horrors of Nazi rule. Thankfully, few people in the UK would have thought of turning their back on those of us escaping the vicious grasp of the Gestapo.

I arrived in London as a young boy with my family but thousands of others like me arrived alone on the Kindertransport. As the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport continue, it is deeply saddening that the majority of today’s young people have no concept of the scheme that brought so many young people to safety.

The UK has a long and proud tradition of protecting refugees which we have a duty to educate our children about in order to see it continued.

Of course, children like me and those escaping on the Kindertransport weren’t the last refugee children to arrive in the UK. Last year, just over 1000 children applied for asylum in the UK in their own right: arriving alone and frightened, often sent to safety by their families who use their life savings to save their child’s life.

Like those of us children who arrived just before the Second World War, child refugees arriving today have often overcome significant trauma and can bear both deep emotional and physical scars. We can’t rewrite their history, but we must help young refugees rebuild their lives and equip them with the skills to contribute to their communities; to give back to the country that welcomed them.

I went on to happily settle in the UK, studying at Cambridge, being ordained in the Church of England, having children of my own, eventually becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1976, but I have never forgotten my refugee roots. I still work with fellow refugees to this day. 

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of this nation I was given the chance to rebuild my life in safety and give back to the country that welcomed me. But I wasn’t the only one. The Refugee Council is currently running an exhibition at St Martin’s in the Field showcasing the contribution made by refugees, young and old, across the country.

The exhibition features a variety of people, including those who have arrived recently from conflicts in Syria, Eritrea, or Somalia, or sought safety like I did decades ago from Hitler’s Germany. It includes a teenage Winter Olympic hopeful, a BAFTA nominated film maker, social workers and lawyers to name but a few. All are safe. All are grateful. All are giving back.

Some people may have worried that Britain’s commitment to protecting and supporting refugees – children and adults – might be weakening. Refugee Week’s new poll finds that it’s actually getting stronger. Our children are proud of our heritage of offering safety to those in need. We should be too.

I benefited from the generosity and kindness of spirit of the British people. But I wasn’t the first person to need help and I certainly wasn’t the last.

Atrocities may not be happening as close to home as they were over 70 years ago, but that is not to say they are no longer happening. War, rape and torture are a reality for many across the world; even children. We should not close our eyes to the horrors experienced by those in far away lands.

We must instead follow the example of ‘Generation Welcome’ and continue Britain’s proud tradition of protecting those, like me, who are forced to flee persecution.

 Photo courtesy of Bill Knight.