THE BLOG

65 Years of Saving Refugees' Lives

28/07/2016 12:42 | Updated 28 July 2016

George Szirtes' mother was a woman who understood persecution. She'd survived two Nazi concentration camps and lost almost her whole family. When revolution came to Hungary in 1956, with a heavy heart, she and her husband took their children's hands, and snuck over the border to find somewhere safe: initially Austria and later Britain. As a result, George was able to grow into the man he is today: a multi award winning poet.

A few years later, and half a world away, another family was arriving in Britain in search of safety. This time it was Gillian Slovo - now a celebrated novelist, playwright and memoirist - her parents and sisters. They'd fled South Africa in 1964 as Gillian's parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were pioneering South African anti-apartheid activists.

The 1970s saw Britain provide shelter to people from all over the world. Humberto had been tortured under Pinochet's brutal rule in Chile before managing to escape to Argentina with his wife Gabriella. After instability later spread to their adopted home, they fled to Britain. Humberto spent decades teaching here and Gabriella worked in social services. Both of their children work in the NHS.

Around the same time Raju Bhatt, a teenager at the time, was being forced from his home, as the infamous dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Britain offered refuge to thousands, including Raju and his family. Raju grew up here and has spent more than 30 years working in the law, developing his own legal practice and serving on the Hillsborough Independent Panel which reported in 2012.

At the end of that same decade, Linh Vu was climbing on board a tiny boat with her father, fleeing Vietnam. She was just 7 years old. Linh and her father were some of the lucky ones; they were among the small number of Vietnamese refugees who were able to find a safe haven in Britain. Linh is now an architect, a wife and a mum. With her brother, she also runs London's first Vietnamese restaurant, established by her father in the early 1980s.

Nearly ten years later, Shash Trevett's world was turned upside down when she and her family were forced out of Sri Lanka in 1987. As a well-known surgeon, her father had been repeatedly kidnapped both by the military and the Tamil Tigers, and forced to operate on their wounded. As a result, the lives of his wife and daughter were in serious danger from both sides. After living in exile in India for four years, they returned to their homeland, only to become the victims of violence once again. Desperate, they sought refuge here. Now a poet, Shash has no doubt Britain saved her life.

Closer to home, a brutal conflict ripped the Balkans apart during the 1990s. Emina fled to the UK from Sarajevo in the 1990s after being medically evacuated with her baby sister, who was born with Down's Syndrome. After completing a Masters at Oxford, she pursued a PhD in clinical psychology and now works with British army, navy, and air force veterans, assessing the support they receive when they have returned from service.

Like Emina, twins Fabian and Fortunate Frizell were young children when they and their family were forced from their home in search of safety in 2002. They'd fled Zimbabwe following a ruthless crackdown on dissidents by Robert Mugabe's government. Favourite and Fortunate have recently completed their studies at Cambridge University.

More recent years have been marred by increasing war and instability, from conflicts in the Middle East to widespread human rights abuses and killings across parts of Africa and Central America. Millions of people have been forced from their homes.

Aziz Anzabi and his family were among them. Aziz used to be a Psychotherapy professor at the University of Tehran. He had a house, a car and money in the bank. But it was a golden cage: he wasn't free, and the authorities would repeatedly imprison him. Things became increasingly dangerous and he knew he needed to get his family to safety. He had no choice but to put their lives in smugglers hands in order to escape. He didn't know where they'd end up, but he knew they had to leave. Two months later, when the lorry doors opened, he discovered they were in Scotland. Now free to express himself, Aziz has become an award winning artist.

George, Gillian, Humberto, Gabriella, Raju, Linh, Shash, Emina, Favourite and Fortunate and Aziz's stories tell of remarkable courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable pain and loss, but they're also emblematic of a commitment the world made to refugees 65 years ago.

In the years leading up to the summer of 1951 the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in everyone's minds, as was the knowledge that just a few years previously, amidst Europe's darkest days, western nations had shamefully turned boatloads of Jewish refugees away from safety.

As a result, in an unremarkable room in Geneva and after weeks of legal wrangling, 26 nations, vowing to never to make those mistakes again, adopted the Refugee Convention - the Magna Carta of international refugee law.

At the same time here in Britain, the two organisations which later became the Refugee Council were founded to ensure that refugees who sought safety in Britain had somewhere to turn. Six and a half decades on, amidst a global displacement crisis of historic levels, I now head that organisation. We're still here because we're sadly still needed.

What we need now is a reaffirmation from the new British Government that we will continue to honour not just the letter, but the spirit of our commitment to offering refuge to those whose lives depend on it. The Refugee Convention isn't just a piece of paper; it's one of the most powerful ideals in the world. It's saved millions of lives; some of them right here in Britain.

The refugees' stories I've told here are truly heart rending, but they also fill me with pride and with hope. This is who we are as a country. This is who we must remain. This is Britain at its best.

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