poland squad

‘Refugee Diaries’: A Homage to the Christmas Channel Crossers

As part of ImmiNews’ ‘Refugee Diaries‘, a series which centres and celebrates voices of current and former refugees and their relatives, Jan Karpinski here reflects on his father’s passage to the UK as a Polish WWII soldier in 1940 to compare to the ill-fitted legislation that exists for those making similar journeys today. Karpinski explores possible amendments to the asylum process that all international leaders should lend their ears to.

What follows is dedicated to the 60 people who were rescued from the Channel over Christmas on their way to the UK. My father was a refugee who, nearly 80 years ago, first came to this country after a dangerous voyage from La Rochelle to Plymouth.

Polish refugees 1939
August 1939, Polish refugees arrive in the UK as the world breaks into war. [Image by Allan/London Express/Getty Images.]

The Christmas rescues show that things desperately need to change starting here in the UK. And we have no excuse: we can do more, should do more and have the potential to do it better. However, even if we wholly jettison austerity and xenophobia, even if we do the most and the best that we can, it will still be just a drop in the ocean of human misery represented by the 75 million people of concern to UNHCR and UNWRA. Mainly, things need to change everywhere – and we need the courage to confront some big and difficult truths to do so.

We need the courage to confront some big and difficult truths

The first is that the two UN Conventions on Refugees no longer provide an effective or sensible framework for dealing with refugees and asylum-seekers today. The world is in dire need of a new, wider foundation on which the international community can act.

Years of considerable effort and persuasion will be needed to break down these barriers – so we had better start soon. Without reform, human rights abuses will continue to soar. Aiding the refugee crisis could easily become another failed ambition, much like the UK’s vision to abolish slavery which continues to accelerate every year.

Polish squadron 1940
After the fall of France in 1940, Polish armed forces formed an allegiance with the UK and contributed immensely to the war effort. Notably, Poland’s pilots formed squadrons which proved instrumental in the Battle of Britain. The above is a colourised photograph of ‘legendary’ 303 squadron which shot down the most planes, 1940 [Image by Cosmopolitan Review]

Now would actually be a good time to start what with the UK currently carving out its new role and voice in the world after Brexit and out of its special relationship with the USA. There is a possibility that the wheels for change are already in motion: an Integrated Security Defence and Foreign Policy Review was announced in the Queen’s Speech in December, proposing the largest and most ‘radical’ review into the UK’s footing in the world “since the end of the Cold War”.

However, even if we wholly jettison austerity and xenophobia, even if we do the most and the best that we can, it will still be just a drop in the ocean of human misery represented by the 75 million people of concern to UNHCR and UNWRA.

But the UK needs to change its scepticism around welcoming refugees and persecuted peoples with a positive message – which can be achieved easily with the truth. If the human talent of those 75 million people can be harnessed, how much better off would we all be? Further still, how much better would it be if the pressing circumstances and persecution that put these vulnerable people where they are were removed?

We have an opportunity to be the voice of humanity’s enlightened self-interest on this and other big issues gripping the world. So why is modern Britain cowering in the shadows?

Some would say that the UK did make some efforts to shield the persecuted when my father arrived in 1940. Although he was not strictly a refugee, he arrived in Plymouth a soldier in uniform, covered by the Allied Forces Act 1940. This Act granted legal authority to countries occupied by German forces to raise and exercise as independent allies to the UK in the war.

Refugee diaries: Jan Karpinski's father
Jan Karpinski’s father, Stanislaw Karpinski, in his military uniform.

In civilian life, my father was a lawyer. But if he had fallen into the hands of either the Germans or the Russians, he would have been shot – for both shared a murderous policy to exterminate Poles who might object to their vicious plans for Poland.

If [my father] had fallen into the hands of either the Germans or the Russians, he would have been shot

This is not a World War II memoir, so let us fast forward through 1940, the Polish Army in Scotland, the 1st (Polish) Independent Parachute Brigade, the Battle of Arnhem and the German bullet that went through father’s rucksack, to the end of the war. The Russians engineered a communist take-over of Poland and continued the killing of Poles who might object, of whom he was certainly one.

The British Government then had to work out what to do with the 230,000 Poles who found themselves in the UK. The answer? The Polish Resettlement Act 1947 and a scheme that rested on three principles: no Pole should be required to return to Poland who did not want to go (in fact, about half decided to return); those who wished to emigrate to a new country should be helped to do so (about 9,500 emigrated to Australia, Canada and other countries); and those who remained were enlisted in the Polish Resettlement Corps which was set up to integrate them into UK life through education, training and finding jobs. In 1948, the Home Office granted applications for British citizenship for Polish ex-servicemen – an initiative which certainly wouldn’t be passed today.

Migrants flee persecution 2014
The EU member states and most of the West turns its back on its moral and legal responsibility to aid the current refugee crisis. [Image by  Royal Netherlands Navy, 2014]

We have an opportunity to be the voice of humanity’s enlightened self-interest on this and other big issues gripping the world. So why is modern Britain cowering in the shadows?

All of this was funded by the Government at a cost (up to February 1949) of £27 million, by which time it was estimated that the 66,000 Poles who had been found work were contributing £3 million a year in income tax. (These sums are roughly equivalent to £969 million and £107 million respectively today).

My father got on with his life, married a girl from Birkenhead and practiced as a solicitor in London.

This all happened a very long time ago and when the world was a very different place. But, it provides a benchmark so we know what a good job actually looks like. The Polish Resettlement Corps was an effective, orderly, adequately funded solution within a defined timeframe. It is hard to see that current international arrangements for dealing with refugees are, in their totality, any of these things. 

The Polish Resettlement Corps was an effective, orderly, adequately funded solution within a defined timeframe. It is hard to see that current international arrangements for dealing with refugees are, in their totality, any of these things. 

So what is to be done? There is enough working-out and thinking-through in this question to keep all the professors of International Relations entertained for years. Without wishing to spoil their fun, here is something to get them going.

Above all, we must strive for the elimination of persecution on grounds of race, politics, and religion. All governments must commit to a basic level of law and order (so as to eliminate persecution), public health, education and social welfare. What else, in the end, are governments for? Failure to meet these basic levels should be a trigger for remedial action by the international community under a UN Convention on Failed States.

Refugee diaries: Madrid most welcoming
Madrid hangs ‘refugees welcome’ banner in support of the 2016 refugee crisis. Spain boasts being the most welcoming EU country for asylum-seekers. [Image by Mitneva.]

There should be a UN Convention on Migration. States should commit to allowing unrestricted emigration, with immigration restricted only by sensible objective constraints on the number of immigrants that can be absorbed.

Above all, we must strive for the elimination of persecution on grounds of race, politics, and religion.

The emerging international regime on climate change should provide for the migratory pressures that it generates.

There should be a new UN Convention on Asylum, based on the principle and the reality that action will be taken against persecutors either by the Government concerned under national law or by the International Community under international law. Protection of those subject to persecution should be the responsibility of the International Community, rather than of individual states, through a beefed-up UNHCR. In each case of persecution triggering the right to asylum, UNHCR should formulate a plan, to be periodically reviewed and updated as necessary, for providing protection and ending the persecution. If it is necessary to provide for the relocation of those being persecuted, this should plug into the mechanisms established under the Convention on Migration.

It is an understatement to say that this is asking a lot, but that is the reality of what is needed.  So who’s up for it?

If you have a story to tell that could be featured in ImmiNews’ Refugee Diaries series, contact us on editors@immigrationnews.co.uk to see how we can celebrate it.

Written by
Jan Karpinski
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