Is the UK really tolerant of immigrants?

In October 1945 a letter to the editor complained to the newspaper Hampstead and Highgate Express"German has meanwhile become" a common language "in her part of London, she commented:" It is certainly not entirely illogical to look forward to a time when German will again be the exception instead of the rule. "

At that time there were around 9,000 war refugees in the north London borough of Hampstead, most of them Jews from Germany and Austria. In the same month around 2,000 residents of Hampstead signed a petition. It called on the House of Commons to ensure the "swift resettlement of the thousands of Austrian and German Jewish refugees" who have turned so many houses and apartments here into factories and workshops, houses and apartments that are now urgently needed for our returning daughters and sons, needed for our evacuated daughters and their children ". This petition took up an argument that was common in post-war Britain and its echo in the Times found. The foreigners must be sent home as quickly as possible, not only to help rebuild their own countries, but also to free up resources for locals and those returning from war.

The British response to larger groups of refugees has always been hostile

It is remarkable how little this line of reasoning has changed over the past seven decades. Steven Woolfe, MEP for the European Parliament, recently issued a warning UK Independence Party (Ukip), 1.8 million people in the UK were already living in public housing. In view of this, it is "very daring" to let more refugees into the country, while more than 9,000 former British soldiers are homeless: "The job of a prime minister is not only to have a heart but also a brain," said Woolfe.

Not only since Prime Minister David Cameron, after long hesitation and under pressure from the European partners, declared that his country wanted to take in 20,000 Syrians directly from refugee camps in the Middle East, did the debate about the supposed or actual special status of Great Britain in matters of asylum and refugee policy become a part of it great passion. And it's not just the right-wing populists from Ukip who mix the topic with the permanently simmering immigration discussion. According to a BBC poll, more than half of those questioned are against letting more refugees from Syria or Libya into the country.

Immigration to the UK, which hit a new record last year - 330,000 more immigrants than people left - has been described as "deeply disappointing" by Cameron's own Secretary of State for Migration, James Brokenshire. There are "just too many immigrants," she says Sunday Times. The more than 25,000 people who sought asylum in Britain from June 2014 to June 2015 - in Germany there were around ten times as many in the same period - are meant as well as EU foreigners and foreign students. Interior Minister Theresa May makes the Schengen Agreement jointly responsible for the refugee crisis.

This fortress mentality is not new. It doesn't matter whether it was Greek Cypriots who had been driven from the north of their island by the Turks; Indians who fled Uganda before Idi Amin or Kosovar Albanians after the Balkan War - if one looks at the past few decades, the British reaction to larger groups of refugees has always been hostile. How does such a mood and mixed situation get along with the unshakable self-image of the British as the most tolerant, cosmopolitan country in Europe?

The history of the British Isles as a place of refuge for politically, ethnically or religiously persecuted people is long and eventful. The Huguenots formed the first large wave of refugees in modern times. At the end of the 17th century, around 50,000 Calvinist Protestants came from France after King Louis XIV had deprived them of religious freedom and civil rights. They were followed in the 18th century by Ashkenazi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Germany and the Netherlands.

An interesting case from today's perspective were the refugees from the German Electorate of Palatinate in 1709. After a particularly cold winter and the extreme hardship of the War of the Spanish Succession, the news spread across the Middle Rhine that Protestants would be naturalized in England, would get land and would stay for a decade exempt from tax. Above all, there be freedom of religion. The 15,000 or so people from Palatinate who translated to England within a few months presented the British with extreme challenges. When it became apparent two years later that the settlement of the newcomers had already cost more than £ 135,000, the naturalization rules were changed. The Tories in particular - David Cameron's party was already represented in parliament at that time - attacked the poorly educated, poorly trained English-speaking "poor palatines" as Catholic thugs who "steal bread from the mouths of our own people". The failed integration of the Palatinate people, many of whom returned disappointed or were shipped on to the American colonies, served the Tories more than once in asylum debates as a prime example that the admission of refugees must end in chaos.

Great Britain gained its reputation as a country with a relaxed immigration regime in the 19th century. Back then, there were no entry or settlement restrictions for decades. Political refugees after the German March Revolution and Russian Jews who fled tsarist pogroms came to the country. Great Britain took in thousands of Belgians during World War I - and sent them back to Belgium in 1918.

In the current debate, reference to this history emphasizes how generously the British welcomed the persecuted of the world, "real refugees", as it is in the Daily Mail often means. It is forgotten or withheld that a large part of the population did not greet these refugees with open arms. Even in the 19th century, the term "so-called refugees" appeared in the Daily Mail on.

The Second World War then played a prominent role. In particular, the fact that the British state granted asylum to Jewish refugees is now a constitutive element of British post-war identity. At commemorative events around the Second World War, not only the defense of the homeland, but also the role of Britain as a refuge for European Jews is commemorated. There is even an erroneous view that Britain entered the war primarily to save the Jews.

In fact, as with almost every wave of immigration, resistance against those who fled the Nazis arose in all classes of society, especially in some trade unions and in parts of the press. An editorial of the Sunday Express spoke in 1938 of "foreign Jews" about to "overrun our country" - not unlike the "swarms of people" that David Cameron recently warned about. "There is currently no intolerance in Britain," he said express-Author. "By keeping an eye on the reasons for intolerance towards Jews in other European countries, we will be able to treat those Jews who have already made their homes with us well."

Private individuals travel to Calais to provide refugees with blankets and tents

Nevertheless, the willingness to help was high. By the start of the war, the United Kingdom had taken in around 80,000 Jewish refugees, 10,000 of whom were minors traveling alone on the so-called Kindertransport. There was also solidarity in the difficult post-war situation. The Hampstead petition provoked a counter-petition and protests. A letter to the editor called it "a repetition of the Nazi bigotry whose logical consequence was exposed in Belsen".

There are also numerous examples of individual generosity and humanity, from the willingness to share resources to the adoption of children from the Kindertransport. And just as the latent hostility towards refugees continues in the current situation, this tendency towards helpfulness in the typical Anglo-individualistic tradition is again noticeable.

The UK government is pushing for as few incentives as possible for people to migrate to Europe. Aid funds flow directly into the camps in the Middle East, and a separate ministerial post for Syrian refugees has even been set up to coordinate this aid. Even David Cameron's visit to a Lebanese refugee camp this Monday, which was intended as a gesture of solidarity, was mainly used by the prime minister to urge people not to travel to Europe.

In the meantime, private individuals are collecting donations in kind and traveling to Calais to provide blankets and tents for refugees waiting in front of the Canal Tunnel. Liberty Hughes, a 28-year-old college student, started a Facebook campaign for the Calais warehouse. Many people "didn't want to just push a button and send money, they wanted to go to France themselves and just hug the people there," she says. As is so often the case in this country, private engagement replaces an effective, coherent political strategy.

The way the British think about their dealings with refugees is selective. They are differentiated in retrospect, which generously overlooks complex circumstances such as conflicts and tensions, to this day according to the old Daily Mail categories between "real" and "alleged". All those who today as Genuine refugees The Huguenots, the Jews expelled by the Tsar or Hitler, even the Indian refugees from Uganda, have one thing in common, as the historian Tony Kushner states: "They all belong to the past. Even if some are still alive and living with us, there will be no more of them. They have clean, self-contained stories that end with a constructed happy ending of success and integration into British society. "

The British immigration debate is in almost everything congruent with corresponding discourses in other Western countries. What distinguishes them from these, Kushner calls the "mythology" of an "innate tolerance", the "belief in the good and fair treatment of real refugees". An auto-suggestive strategy, with the help of which politics and published opinion in Great Britain credit immense historical capital in the exemplary handling of refugees. With this credit in your back, it is easy to refuse refugee quotas and, like an innocent observer, to condemn the European Union's failed migration policy.