By Cllr Stephen Cowan, Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham
Every year that passes, there are fewer people left who remember the horrors of the Second World War first hand. Most of of those who can still bear witness were children when the war broke out; some lived through the war here at home but others, like our own Lord Alf Dubs, were washed up on our shores by the violent upheaval that overtook our continent and left families scattered and broken.
Alf arrived here, aged 6, on a kindertransport train organised by Nicky Winton, known as Britain’s Schindler. Winton saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children who would otherwise have been murdered, as many of Alf’s family were. Alf was one of the lucky ones. He arrived from Prague, speaking no English, with nothing more than a knapsack on his back, but the UK welcomed him and gave him the chance of a better life. Forty years after his arrival here he was part of the team that negotiated Peace in Northern Ireland and the global ban on cluster bombs.
Last month we marked 75 years since Victory in Europe. Alf was part of those commemorations, alongside many others across our borough, old and young.
Those who were there during the war remind us that the horrors they experienced weren’t so long ago. Dame Vera Lynn, who sadly passed away earlier this week, who had sung to the troops three quarters of a century before, only recently serenaded the nation with We’ll Meet Again. And we remembered the role Great Britain played to bring that suffering to an end and how that greatest of generations kept striving to change our country for the better in the decades that followed.
The refugee emergency of today is the greatest humanitarian crisis Europe has faced since World War Two. The bombs that destroy cities these days are more sophisticated, and supplemented with mass chemical attacks, but the terror experienced by those being bombed is exactly what was felt by our grandparent’s generation who lived through the Blitz or faced murderous Nazi cruelty in mainland Europe.
And while in the 1930s, the kindertransport gave refugee children a legal route to safety, in the 21st century it has been substituted by squalid and dangerous camps on Europe’s borders and flimsy dinghies, or dangerous refrigerated lorries. But for the children fleeing war the fear is the same as it was 75 years ago.
Saturday is World Refugee Day. A day to celebrate those countries that provide refuge and to reconfirm our commitment to be a safe haven for those fleeing terror.
Our first priority as a borough will always be our residents; that’s why Hammersmith & Fulham has the third-lowest council tax in Britain, has taken all children out of homeless B&B accommodation, offers free homecare to our elderly and Disabled residents and provides free breakfasts for all primary school children. But Hammersmith & Fulham is also the only council in the country to send its social workers into camps to rescue child refugees and our borough looks after 123 refugee children and has made a commitment to take more.
Look at the countries that are generous towards refugees and there’s a common denominator; they’re also compassionate towards their own citizens and have built some of the most successful and admirable societies anywhere.
So, as we celebrate World Refugee Day, it gives us a moment to contemplate the country we are, the values we share and the contribution refugees have made to our country. And just as our grandparents’ generation did, it also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the type of country we want to bequeath to those who come after us.
Happy World Refugee Day.
Want to read more news stories like this? Subscribe to our weekly e-news bulletin.