The UK has a long history of helping people from other countries that are being persecuted or are in danger in their homelands. When we have done so, we have benefited as a nation.
We have not only been enriched by doing the right thing, gaining a sense of national dignity by not turning our backs on strangers in need. We have also been culturally, materially and economically enriched too.
There are commonly held fears that we don’t have enough space for newcomers, who will be a drain on our resources. On the contrary, history shows that extending a hand of friendship to people whose lives are at risk overseas has brought many thousands of skilled, resilient and hard-working individuals here.
A tradition of helping refugees
More than 300 years ago, Britain welcomed around 100,000 Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France. Many of them were expert silk weavers and financiers. The Bank of England itself had 7 Huguenots among its 24 founders.
In the 20th century, successive international crises have triggered influxes from Spain, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Uganda, Chile, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iran, Iraq and many other countries besides.
During the Second World War alone, Britain took in at least 20,000 Jews. Often they were highly educated, and their contribution greatly enhanced our cultural output, through figures such as conductor Sir George Solti, philosopher Karl Popper, sculptor Jacob Epstein, and artist Lucian Freud.
They were mainly from Germany and Austria, but at the turn of the century, tens of thousands of Russian and East European Jews made a home here, boosting the economy with hugely successful businesses, even though they started with next to nothing.
For instance, Sir Montague Burton (originally Meshe Osinsky from Lithuania), came to Britain in 1900 as a humble pedlar, but built his clothing empire up to 400 Burton shops in 30 years.
And Michael Marks, a Polish refugee from the Russian empire, joined up with Englishman Thomas Spencer in 1894, in what was the beginning of one of Britain’s most successful business partnerships, Marks & Spencer.
Some of our most famous names are refugees or the descendants of refugees, such as Rita Ora (Kosovo), Anish Kapoor (Iraq), Freddie Mercury (Zanzibar), Mika (Lebanon), Ed and David Miliband (Poland), Ben Elton (Czechoslovakia), and Rachel Weisz (Austria and Hungary), to name a few.
Refugees in construction
Refugees have also been crucial to the construction industry. Around 250,000 Polish refugees came to Britain during and just after the Second World War. Many had been soldiers fighting in the British army, and were granted special treatment in acknowledgement for their help.
The Poles helped to fill huge post-war labour shortages, and did much to rebuild infrastructure and housing as part of the national recovery effort.
Now the industry again faces significant skills shortages, improving access for committed, skilled or qualified refugees to work in construction makes good sense.
Refugees who have made a successful application for asylum have full permission to work in the UK, in any profession and at any level.
Making the most of skills
But it’s not easy for them to find the jobs to match their skills. Some organisations specialise in helping refugees find placements. Transitions, for example, focus on helping professional refugees, over half of whom are engineers.
The agency says that the construction industry is particularly responsive to employing refugees, as there’s a ‘corporate realisation’ within the sector that diversity works for business.
About a quarter of refugees from Syria are highly skilled and qualified, but they face huge barriers converting their knowledge and expertise into appropriate work.
Transitions develop internship programmes with companies so that refugees can get UK work experience and English language training – and hopefully a crucial toehold in the jobs market.
Towns and communities can play their part too. The council in Ashford, Kent, agreed to take on 250 Syrian refugees, more than any other Kentish council.
The council is reaching out to other businesses to provide work experience and training opportunities.
Some housing associations and charities are also providing help where they can. Canopy, for instance, renovates empty and derelict houses in the north of England.
Projects such as these, Canopy says, bring people from completely different backgrounds together, enabling communities to interact and learn from each other’s experiences – helping them to rise above ignorance and prejudice.