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Refugees, citizens, and camps: a very British history

Today, very few people think of Britain as a land of camps. Instead, camps seem to happen “elsewhere,” from Greece to Palestine to the global South. Yet during the 20th century, dozens of camps in Britain housed tens of thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese. The camps jumbled together those who fled the crises of war and empire. Hungarians and Anglo-Egyptians competed for spaces when they disembarked in 1956, victims of, respectively, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nasser’s expulsion of British subjects from Egypt during the Suez Crisis; Ugandan Asians arrived in 1972 to find Poles still encamped from three decades earlier.

“Refugee camps” in Britain were never only for refugees. Indeed, it was impossible to segregate citizens and refugees. The Irish poor bunked with Belgians in flight, English women moved into camps to join their Polish husbands, while homeless Britons squatted in camps designed for foreigners. This was no rosy tale of multicultural harmony. But the contact between refugees and citizens—unsettling though it may have been—made it impossible for Britons to think of refugees only as different from themselves. This is one of the most crucial lessons that Britain’s camps, now largely forgotten, have to offer.

Many camps were peopled with British squatters, as refugees shared space—willingly or not—with Britons who had been ousted from their homes by bombs and poverty. Britons were often trying to get into the camps, while refugees were trying to get out of them. Although now we might think of camps as absolutely segregating refugees and citizens, 20th century camps often highlighted their closeness.

During the Second World War, millions of homes in Britain were damaged or destroyed; many others fell to slum clearance. Tens of thousands of Britons occupied army camps: a desperate response to this housing crisis. These squatters referred to themselves as “refugees” from overcrowding. But this was not just a metaphor. British squatters took over camps earmarked for or already occupied by Poles. In 1946, British ex-servicemen occupied a camp in Buckinghamshire that had been slated for Polish soldiers’ wives, and refused to vacate the premises. Some of these squatters were families that councils had refused to place in houses, because they were seen as unsatisfactory tenants. Refugee camps, then, could be places to stash British “problem families.”

Image credit: Photograph of Ugandan Asian family at Tonfanau by Jim Arnould, Nova (April 1973).

Along with demobilized British soldiers and bombed-out civilians, others made their way to Polish camps. In 1950, at the Kelvedon Camp for Poles in Essex, the National Assistance Board added a reception center for British vagrants. Poles and Britons slept separately, but shared clothing, a warden, and a doctor. Caring for Polish refugees and homeless Britons exhausted Kelvedon’s warden, who worried about “dissatisfying both populations.” He complained that the two groups were conspiring against him—Polish doctors happily handed out certificates to British vagrants stating that they were medically unfit to work.

Migrants, too, moved through spaces intended for refugees. Kaz Janowski, a Polish refugee who spent his childhood at Kelvedon, recalled “the steady flow of disheveled-looking [English] rustics,” as well as “gypsy” caravans moving through the camp and wayfarers sleeping in the camp ditches as they chose. Henry Pavlovich, who lived at the Polish camp at Foxley, recalled that as Polish families began to leave the camp, Irish and African Caribbean families took their place. Mixed communities sprang up. Pavlovich’s father, a trumpet player, forged casual friendships with the African Caribbean residents, intrigued by the Calypso music they brought with them to the Polish camp, and the drums they made from large oil cans or food tins. By contrast, the English and Irish residents of Foxley seemed to Pavlovich “totally unpredictable and uncomprehending about everything.”

As these stories suggest, refugee camps in Britain brought a startling variety of people into contact, creating unique intimacies and frictions. In 1972, hundreds of Ugandan Asians found themselves huddled over heaters in wartime wooden sheds at Tonfanau, a remote army camp in North Wales. This unlikely scene prompted even more unlikely encounters between people who surely would otherwise never have met. Margretta Young-Jones, who volunteered at Tonfanau, proudly recalled how she and a Ugandan Asian matriarch pricked their fingers and mixed their blood so she could be considered another “daughter.” Her young son, Edwin, was shocked by his first taste of a raw chili pepper at Tonfanau; Young-Jones described their shared meal as the start of a “beautiful friendship.”

The interactions between refugees and citizens can’t be easily characterized as hostility or benevolence, prejudice or tolerance. Instead, they reveal a morally complicated story about empathy, solidarity, and activism. As the global refugee crisis once again brings to Europe the challenges of mass encampment, we would do well to remember that refugee camps reflect how a society treats all people in need—foreign or domestic.

Featured image credit: Polish children at Foxley Camp. Photograph by Zbigniew Pawlowicz, by kind permission of his son, Henry Pavlovich.

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