Refugee integration success – the United Kingdom’s post-war legacy

The Kindertransport effort, which bought refugee children to the UK during World War Two, is an example of the positive contribution refugees can make to their host society, writes Rebecca Connell.

The Kindertransport effort, which brought refugee children to the UK during World War Two, is an example of the positive contribution refugees can make to their host society, writes Rebecca Connell.

Between December 1938 and September 1939, on the cusp of World War Two, nearly ten thousand children of Jewish origin were rescued from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig.

The British Government, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, waived strict immigration restrictions enabling these children to find refuge in the UK. Known as the Kindertransport - German for “children’s transport” - it is considered the largest rescue operation for a specific group of people undertaken by British official bodies.

“The Kindertransport was a historic national effort to bring refugees to the UK,” says Ujjwal Krishna, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University. “Given that most of the financial support for the operation was mobilised by civil society actors like charitable bodies and private individuals, this story provides a successful blueprint for current situations, and can prove very effective in shaping public opinion and policy.”

Krishna collaborated with Jody Harris and Becky Mitchell at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, as part of a project funded by Safe Passage UK, to explore how refugee children have integrated into UK life. Their journal article titled Exploring the integration of child refugees in the United Kingdom: the case of the Kindertransport was published in Jewish Historical Studies by the UCL Press in April 2020.

“Most studies into the Kinder tend to focus on their experience in the aftermath of the war, so we chose instead to gather valuable insight into their lives over a longer timespan, and with a view to challenge the current public perceptions of refugees,” says Krishna.

Their research informed the Kindertransport Legacy Campaign, launched in the House of Lords in May 2018, and led by Lord Alf Dubs, who sponsored the 2016 Dubs Amendment to offer unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to the UK. Lord Dubs himself came to the UK from Czechoslovakia in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport organised by Sir Nicholas Winton.

The study was conducted through a series of interviews with Kinder, analysing their lives through the lens of the key domains of refugee integration developed in 2008 by researchers Alastair Ager and Alison Strang. These included education, employment, health, safety, language and cultural knowledge, the degree to which refugees retained their original cultural identity, their involvement in civic bodies and community organisations, and their understanding of rights and citizenship.

Krishna has found that most of the Kinder in his sample successfully integrated into the UK, with education and employment playing a particularly significant role. They were thoroughly immersed and engaged in local affairs, public speaking, advocacy, and organisations working with refugees.

“Our sample was relatively limited since by the time we conducted the study, many of the Kinder were of an advanced age or had unfortunately passed away. Despite this, we were quite rich in terms of the data that we generated,” says Krishna. “We had a wonderful group of octogenarians and nonagenarians, each with heart-wrenching and inspiring stories. Everyone had fascinating recollections of what had happened, accounts that could be put into movies, exceptional things.”

The success of these refugees sets a positive precedent for future refugees entering the UK. Krishna hopes that his research can be put to good use by demonstrating the positive effects of refugee programs.

“I believe our research builds the narrative that if the UK could do this before successfully, and that people brought to the UK can contribute to public life in such a positive way, then it can be done again,” says Krishna. “As politics around the world veer away from openness, inclusivity, and the ability to accept those from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, the experience of the Kindertransport simply goes to show that it is very much possible to integrate people.”