My father, Gershon Glausiusz, arrived in England from Israel as a 17-year-old immigrant in October 1952. He was carrying a canvas shoulder bag he had sewn from fabric he found in a tailor’s shop in the small German town of Trobitz, shortly after Red Army soldiers liberated him from the Nazis on April 23, 1945. After the war, he had returned with his surviving family to his birth place in Hungary, and then came on aliyah in 1949. My father’s journey from Israel to North London took him by ship, train and foot, via the port of Marseilles in France and Dover on the English Kent coast, until he reached his parents, brothers and sister, who had found refuge in the United Kingdom a year earlier.
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I’ve been thinking of my father’s odyssey as I read news reports of the horrific deaths by drowning of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean — approximately 1,700 so far in 2015, according to Amnesty International. In one week in April alone, more than 11,000 people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa tried to cross the Mediterranean in ramshackle smugglers’ boats, according to Doctors Without Borders, and more than 1,000 reportedly died, including about 750 people crammed onto a boat that capsized off the coast of Libya on April 19.
My own family had endured the horrors of Nazi persecution and war before they made their way to England. My Hungarian-born father is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and my grandfather, Israel Glausiusz, was one of only two survivors of a Hungarian slave labor battalion. Hiding in a forest on one terrible Shabbat morning in 1944, he and his fellow survivor watched as the entire battalion of 200 men — many of them decorated veterans of World War I — were lined up and machine-gunned down.
Despite his traumatic past, my grandfather was hardly embraced on his arrival in England. He was required to learn a new trade — tailoring — “even as a refugee from Hungary, as a survivor,” says my father, and he had to wait a year before being granted refugee status in England.
When I read the immigration policies of UKIP — the United Kingdom Independence Party, now Britain’s fourth-largest political party — I’m reminded of the conditions that my grandparents faced in 1951, as well as earlier obstructive immigration policies. UKIP, a xenophobic party that feeds on the public’s fear of foreigners, would create a “Migration Control Commission” to bring down immigration. Work permits would be allocated “to fill skills gaps,” in the job market; immigrants would be required to speak English, and have a job and accommodation waiting for them; there would be no amnesty for illegal immigrants. While UKIP leader Nigel Farage has conceded that the nation should “help Christians who are fleeing Syria to escape death and torture by allowing some to come to the U.K.,” he insists that Muslims seek refuge elsewhere.
UKIP has no hope of obtaining a parliamentary majority in the upcoming May 7 elections in Britain, but it is hardly alone in its anti-immigration stance: the now-ruling Conservative Party promises to “control immigration” by “cracking down on abuse of the immigration system.” In fact, due to the restrictive immigration policies of the European Union countries, “most migrants from outside the European Union have little or no access to legal routes to migration,” to quote University of Bath senior lecturer Emma Carmel.
Fear of foreigners isn’t a new phenomenon in Britain: the 1905 Aliens Act introduced the country’s first border controls, barring the immigration of certain “undesirables,” including “a lunatic or an idiot” or those who had no means of support. The Act was passed in alarm at the waves of Polish and Russian Jews reaching Britain’s shores after fleeing Tsarist persecution. (The wave included my maternal great-grandparents, Meyer and Rivka Shapiro, who had sailed separately across the sea from Lithuania.)
My English-born mother Irene recalls the times in her childhood when she was told to “go back to your own country,” (Palestine, in pre-State-of-Israel days). She told me that her standard reply was, “We would, but you won’t give it to us.” That demand was ironic, given that the ancestors of her father David Harris, Jews of Portuguese origin named Moses Nunes Cardozo and Rachel de Chaves, came to England in the 17th century.
Historically, distrust of outsiders did not stop Britain from welcoming refugees of many nations: French Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century; socialists and royalists fleeing revolution in Europe in the mid-19th century; Russian Jews escaping pogroms, and in the 1930s, according to Yad Vashem, some 80,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. It did so in the face of Oswald Mosley’s anti-Semitism, whose populist British Union of Fascists pledged to “free British industry from foreigners be they Hebrew or any other form of alien.”
Yet, fear of the stranger remains palpable today, and conceivably played a prominent role in the British government’s decision to cut funding for European Union search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. This EU policy has been described by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein as "short-sighted, short-term political reactions pandering to the xenophobic populist movements that have poisoned public opinion on this issue."
I am appalled by populist xenophobia, but at the same time, I have to remember – and am grateful – that Britain did indeed provide a haven to my family, not once, but three times. So on May 7, when Britons go to the polls, I hope that they remember their proud heritage of welcoming refugees — and reject the insidious vilification of immigrants as personified by UKIP.
Josie Glausiusz is a journalist who writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind. Her weekly column, On Science, appears online each Wednesday in The American Scholar.