Ten Times Britain Took In Refugees At Times Of Crisis

Basque children ready to be evacuated
Basque children preparing for evacuation from Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, some giving the Republican salute. Wikipedia Commons

Pressure is mounting on British Prime Minister David Cameron to accept more asylum seekers to the U.K. In the wake of the tragic picture of a dead Syrian boy washed up on Turkish beach that emerged yesterday and was featured on many national newspaper front pages on Thursday, a Twitter campaign and petition has seen British citizens demanding that the country open it doors. History shows that Britain has a long reputation of providing refuge to those in desperate need—although sometimes it did so rather begrudgingly.


During the 17th century, around 200,000 Huguenots—French Protestants persecuted by the devout Catholic King Louis XIVfound sanctuary in the Britain and Holland. At the time, the population of Britain was around 2 million. The so-called 'Sun King' revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had allowed the Huguenots to practice freedom of worship, and authorized the killing of around 50,000 of them. Most of the new arrivals were highly skilled—in fact, seven of the 24 founders of the Bank of England were Huguenots.

Jewish immigrants in UK
Jewish refugees in Liverpool, 1882 Wikipedia

Russian Jews

During the 1880s, hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews sought sanctuary in Britain, settling in towns such as London, Leeds and Manchester. More than two million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914 as a result of economic hardship and persecution, problems which increased hugely after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which heralded a wave of pogroms.


The U.K. was home to approximately 250,000 Belgian refugees during World War I1—6,000 arrived in a single day—the largest single influx in the country's history. Around 120,000 Belgian civilians who did not flee their home country were used as forced labor during the war, made to work in German prison factories and camps.


Despite the initial reluctance of the British government, which adhered to its policy of non-intervention, 3,840 Basque children were eventually put aboard the steamship Habana, bound for Southampton, after the Nazi bombing of the civilian population of Guernica in 1937. They were sent to camps set up in fields in Eastleigh, the result of a "remarkable effort" by the whole community, according to the Basque Children Association UK. Later, many children were relocated in residential homes, while others returned to Spain.

Jewish children arrive in London
Arrival of Jewish refugee children, port of London, February 1939 Wikimedia Commons

European Jews

Almost 8,000 Jewish children arrived in Britain by July 1939 as a result of "Kindertransport"—organized rescue efforts, compared with the 1,850 admitted to Holland, 800 to France, 700 to Belgium, and 250 to Sweden before the outbreak of World War II. Public outrage in Britain erupted over "Crystal Night" of 9-10 November 1938 when Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed across Germany and Jews were arrested, beaten and killed. However, the British government and media were not always as welcoming in their attitudes to Jews as is often thought. While around 70,000 Jews were admitted to Britain by the time war started, British Jewish associations claimed that around half a million more were rejected over the course of the war, according to the book Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948 by Louise London.


After the failure of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Russia, around 21,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Britain, as Soviet tanks began to roll into the country. Nearly a quarter of a million Hungarians fled the country in total. It was the height of the Cold War, and many were greeted as heroes upon their arrival in the UK. Poles, Romanians and Czechoslovakians also fled to Britain between 1945-1960, escaping communism.

Ugandan Asians

When Ugandan dictator Idi Amin gave Asians 90 days to get out of Uganda in 1972, around 27,000 of the country's 55,000-strong Asian community escaped to Britain. Amin described the Asians as "bloodsuckers," and warned that any remaining in the country would be imprisoned in military camps. Sadly, there were many objections to their resettlement in the U.K. Leicester council wrote newspaper advertisements warning the refugees not to come to the city, according to the BBC. Cabinet papers released in 2003 dating from 1972 revealed that the Conservative government at the time had tried to find a remote island, such as the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, to house the Ugandan Asians who eventually settled in Britain, citing concerns about the impact of race relations in Britain.


After General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973 in a bloody coup supported by the United States that toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende, some 3,000 Chileans were allowed to enter the U.K. It is estimated that over 40,000 Chileans were tortured as political prisoners under Pinochet's regime and approximately 3,200 people were killed as a result of the political violence.

Albanian Kosovars

During the 1990s, open conflict between Serbian and Kosovar Albanian forces resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 Kosovar Albanians. 400,000 were forced from their homes, and of these, 4,500 came to Britain, seeking refuge. At the time, the foreign secretary Jack Straw came under pressure from opposition leaders, claiming that the U.K. was not taking its fair share and that Macedonia would be plunged into chaos if the country did not act.