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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


British Policy and the Refugees 1933-1941
Yvonne Kapp and Margaret Mynatt

(London: Frank Cass, 1997)
35.00; ISBN 0-7146-4797-7.
Pb.: 16.00; ISBN 0-7146-4352-1


'Between the years 1933-39 the United Kingdom received some 80,000 to 90,000 refugees from countries under Nazi rule. Some 20,000 to 30,000 of these re-emigrated before the outbreak of war' (p. 3).

This book is centrally concerned with Jewish and political refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia fleeing Nazi oppression by coming into Britain in the 1930s. The book also critically examines the programme of internment and deportation instigated by the British government in the summer of 1940. Yvonne Kapp was born in Dulwich in 1903 into a Jewish middle-class family. She became involved in relief work for refugees from 1933, worked full time for Jewish Refugees Committee and was later seconded to the Czech Refugee Trust Fund becoming Assistant to the Director. Margaret Mynatt was born in Vienna in 1907 into a poor British/Austrian Jewish family. She became a journalist and after the Reichstag fire fled to Prague and eventually to London, where she worked on a voluntary basis for anti-fascist aid organisations and then for British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Both women were committed communists and were dismissed from their positions in the government sponsored Czech Refugee Trust Fund on account of their political affiliations. This book was written when they were both living in the Lake District in 1940. Although the book was accepted for publication in 1940, publication was stopped when a Penguin volume The Internment of Aliens written by anti-fascist and anti-communist Francois Lafitte was published. Publication was reconsidered in 1968 and again in the 1980s but was not finally published until 1997 - fifty-seven years after it was written.

The book is written in an accessible style that very much engages the reader in the actual experiences of refugees and their struggle against the many and changing ways in which they were positioned by the British authorities before and following the onset of the war. As well as graphically describing the dynamics of government and the British public's responses to the refugees, the authors present criticisms of government policies, all of which have continuing relevance for Britain, Ireland and other European countries.

Although the Geneva Convention which was framed to meet the refugee problem relating to education and employment of refugees amongst other things, was only partially ratified by Britain. The book lists the many aspects of the Convention that were not applied in the British situation which applied its illiberal Aliens Act. 'The effects of these circumstances was to develop, by 1939, a wrangling and haggling apparatus wherein the harassed but humane officials of both the refugee organisations and the Aliens Department co-operated to fit the refugee problem into the Procrustes' bed of the regulations' (p. 25). A further effect of these complicated and obstructive regulations was the keeping of working-class foreigners out of the country (p. 27).

The authors also raise the important question of representation of refugees and the ways in which the paternalistic workings of some refugee organisations means that a large mass of refugees had no voice at all in the policies that deeply effected their lives. They describe the Arbeitskreis as an example of a refugee representative body and its effectiveness in saving time and money to the relief organisations. The authors discuss why such self-representation was left to the political refugees and note the different circumstances by which racial and political refugees gain refugee status and the consequent different levels of preparedness.

Drawing on their own experience of fund-raising efforts and working with refugees, they make a distinction between the attitudes of the general British public evidenced in the large contributions to funds for refugees, and the authorities. They also challenge those who blame media calls for internment (p. 99-103). They describe some of the prejudices of the tribunals which were empowered to classify refugees and the ways in which the internment policy led to refugees being given the status of 'prisoners of war'. When Canada and Australia offered to take 6/7,000 and 10,000 prisoners of war respectively, the deportation of refugees was undertaken in haste without pre warning or notification of relatives. The sinking of the Arandora Star with two and a half times as many people on board as it was designed for, by a U boat off the coast of Ireland, in July 1940 revealed that young anti-Nazi refugees were on board 'whose deportation had been kept a secret from their families and from the official refugee organisations responsible for them' (p. 113). This disaster at least led to some public discussion and debate.

The suspicion that surrounds refugees in times of war is addressed and challenged by the authors with reference to the material and political dynamics of refugee status and the internal surveillance that takes place within refugee communities. It is evident from this book that the internment of the refugees cannot be seen as an aberration in a time of crisis but as coming out of an attitude toward foreigners, Aliens and Jews that were prevalent during the 1930s and before.

This book offers an insight into those 'external policies and conditions' that shaped the lives and experiences of refugees to Britain in this period and the changing labels, status and loyalty tests required of them by the authorities. The authors are self-conscious about how their account might be read and note that they are not advocating unlimited admission but arguing instead for legislation and policies based on the principle of the right to asylum, that is, for a 'consistent pro-refugee policy' rather than what they saw as an 'anti- refugee policy with loopholes' (p. 35-6)


Breda Gray, University College Cork.



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