“Untermenschen” and “Asylum Seekers”: a report on a recent symposium

by Leslie Baruch Brent
This article appeared first in the March 2010 edition newsletter of the Association of Jewish Refugees.
This ambitious meeting, starting at 9.40 a.m. and finishing early evening on a Sunday, January 24, was organised by Meretz U.K., a leftwing Jewish education and pressure-group (“Equality, Human Rights, Peace and the Environment”). It was an interesting day but poorly attended, possibly because of the title but probably also because few people are sufficiently devoted to this cause to want to sacrifice a whole Sunday. I had been asked to talk about my life and my autobiography, representing as it were the Kindertransports.

The programme included a touching film, “The Forgotten Refugees”, describing the plight of Jewish Iraqi, Iranian and Egyptian refugees who have had a hard life in Israel. This was followed by a talk by Edwin Shuker, a refugee from Iraq who left that country in the 1970s. David Rosenberg talked about the 1905 Aliens Act in this country and the dire effect this had on Jewish immigration (down from about 500 to 3 within 4 years). Subsequent Acts placed further restrictions on those who managed to gain entry. All this was in marked contrast to British attitudes in the 1930s and especially of course towards the Kindertransports.

Another film (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Children of Asylum”) illustrated the appalling treatment meted out to children who arrived more recently in the U.K. without their parents, e.g. from Uganda-- a happy ending for some but not for others, who were repatriated with an uncertain future. Nitzan Horowitz, an Israeli former foreign affairs correspondent with Haaretz before becoming a Meretz member of the Knesset and who has lobbied on behalf of children of migrants born in Israel, was unable to attend. His address was therefore delivered on his behalf, by telephone, by Ms. Rotem Ilam, a young psychology student who founded the pressure group “Israeli Children” and who works with him on behalf of the children of migrant workers. She spoke about the children born in Israel and who regarded themselves as patriotic Israelis, but who have been under threat of deportation, despite widespread sympathy among the population. This was followed by Ben du Preez,  formerly of Amnesty International  (Refugee Rights), who described the chaotic and constantly changing asylum policy of Israel though he stressed that Egypt’s was far worse.

  A very informative talk was given by Maurice Wren, Director of AsylumAid, who analysed the problem of asylum seekers in the U.K. It is a sorry tale: policies have been generated largely by expediency and the pace has been forced by the BNP and the UK Independence Party, as well as the tabloid press. The system in place now being aggressive and with the bar set impossibly high, to act as a deterrent, has unleashed waves of people smuggling, with all the horrors that entails. The policy was essentially target-driven and the claims of torture victims were often met with unwarranted scepticism. Some progress is being made in developing faster and more credible assessment for those seeking asylum.

The day closed with a personal account by Pauline Levis of her 5-year (as yet unfinished) battle to secure the future of an Iranian student, and with a gifted young professional singer from the Congo (who had grown up in a refugee family in the UK) singing African songs – a delightful conclusion to an arduous but interesting day that, despite the small audience, had provoked lively discussions..

Ed. Postscript:  Pauline Levis Iranian student and his family have been given indefinite right of stay in the United Kingdom since the publishing of the article. 

Meretz UK Chair Yehuda Erdman on this review :
Dear all
A very balanced and well written account of our event. I am glad that at least one person appreciated the enormous effort that Meretz UK and particularly Daniel Zylberstajn took to address this vitally important issue of our day.
You can all rest assured that refugees and asylum will be very high up the agenda in this forthcoming election in the UK, but as alluded to by Leslie Baruch Brent, this topic unfortunately has the pace set by the BNP and the UKIP, as well as the tabloid press.
It used to be 30 or so years ago that the British Jews stood four square behind refugees not only because of the memory of the experience of Jews themselves in the UK circa. 1905, but also in more recent times, i.e. 1930's the fate of our people in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. They wre like rats caught in a trap, and I speak personally here although my immediate family made a successful exit from Germany.
Later on in the 70's there was an extra-ordinarily vital and eventually successful campaign to obtain the release of Soviet Jews. To this day it is still largely unknown what fate befell our people who were Soviet citizens before 1939 and later in the 2nd World War, the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled the advance of the Nazis to the USSR. Many believe that  more than a million  perished either through the war, or the massive population transfers ordered by Stalin, or the murders of suspected enemies of Stalin, or of the harsh conditions in the gulags. It is very odd that the huge effort invested in examining the fate of Jews under the Nazis, e.g. by Yad vashem, seems to have run out of steam. Very few have the tenacity or will to look at Soviet crimes against Jewry, as well as all the other persecuted peoples. I could mention the Ukrainians, but there is also the Chechens, Armenians etc.
Is there some collective amnesia?

Yehuda Erdman

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