Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 6th April 1939.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby

I want to call the attention of the Government and of the House of Commons to the problem of the political, religious and racial refugees, which exists at the present time. It is now five months since we discussed this question and in the meantime Governments and private organisations have been able to settle a few thousands of these people overseas, and a few more, tens of thousands, have been brought to safety where temporary hospitality has been found; but against that meagre quota we have seen the addition of perhaps 250,000 Spanish refugees, many of whom cannot return to Spain while the present regime endures, and perhaps tens of thousands of Slovaks, Czechs and Sudeten Germans, and many other refugees as well. In addition, Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Slovakia and Moravia have introduced anti-Semite legislation on the German model. There are even rumours, which I hope the Noble Lord will say are without foundation, that in return for our military guarantee the Polish Government propose to make a great annual addition to the stream of involuntary refugees.

It is not in numbers only that matters have been growing worse. As each month passes the resources of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere grow less. The destruction by the German Government of the earning power of the Jews is growing more complete and the moment when they must leave Germany or die comes nearer. I was told only this morning by someone with an intimate knowledge of the facts that the 20,000 Jews in Vienna are literally at their last gasp and that they are living on the meagre ration of thin soup and a tiny piece of bread which they are able to get by standing in long queues in the streets, throughout the night hours. As each week passes the resources of the charitable societies and their funds are being used up, not in productive schemes of final settlement but simply in keeping the refugees alive. I want to submit to the Noble Lord and to the House that we have reached the point with this refugee problem which the Governments found they had reached with the post-War refugee problem in 1921, when they appointed Dr. Nansen High Commissioner of the League to deal with this matter—the point where it is vital that the whole question should be treated no longer as a humanitarian matter but as one of urgent, political and economic importance to Europe as a whole, with which the Governments in their own interest and the interest of their own peoples must now deal.

In what I am going to say this morning I do not want to deal with any special question. There is the old problem of the German Jews and the newer problems of the Spaniards and Czechs, but I do not want to speak upon what I might call the humanitarian interest and the tragic suffering of the refugees. I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) and other hon. Members who have an intimate knowledge of the facts. My hon. Friend acquired at first hand an experience and a feeling about this matter which is perhaps more vivid and more intense than my own. I want to review the problem very briefly and in the broadest outline as a political, economic and administrative problem with which the Government should deal, and in so doing I want to make certain practical proposals—at least, I hope the Noble Lord will think they are practical—which are drawn from a long experience in a humble capacity in the highly successful refugee administration of Dr. Nansen, long years ago.

What are the essential facts in the present situation, from the broad political and economic point of view? They are that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in the countries neighbouring Germany, Czecho-Slovakia, Austria and Spain who are longing to be settled in new careers in distant lands. We are longing to settle them. There are hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees still in Germany and these other countries, in daily danger of death or of torture which to them is far worse than the quick death for which they hope. They are longing to leave those countries and we are longing to bring them away, but the absorptive capacity of those neighbouring countries and the resources of their charitable societies are very near their end, because, in spite of the long months that have passed, we have not yet found the outlets in new countries for the refugees whom we have already temporarily taken in. We must find those outlets and find them soon. Unless we do, we shall allow a disaster to happen which will leave on our generation a lasting mark of shame.

The Noble Lord is as well aware as I am, and perhaps much better than I, that those outlets can be found by what is called infiltration, a movement of individuals and small groups of refugees, and, secondly, by settlement, a movement of larger groups and bodies co-operating in big development schemes. Both infiltration and settlement are important. Infiltration is much more important than it appears, because if there is adequate administrative machinery and sufficient money, very big results may be obtained by it. A plan of settlement by these two methods is urgently required and every day that goes by without such a plan involves cruelty, suffering, fearful waste of the lives of the refugees and of the contribution which they ought to make to the welfare of the world, and burdens which their maintenance in idleness imposes on those who keep them. That is waste in which every nation and every Government are involved.

I have been forced reluctantly to the conclusion that neither His Majesty's Government nor other Governments have sufficiently realised the vital importance of speed in this regard. It is now nearly a year since the invitations were first sent out to the conference at Evian and five months since the Jewish pogroms in Germany. I am informed that the British Guiana commission of inquiry is still very far from being able to prepare a positive report; the Rhodesian committee of inquiry left on its journey only two weeks ago; the inquiry into San Domingo has not made much progress; Palestine is still completely or virtually closed; Tanganyika and Madagascar have been discussed but, so far as I know, no systematic inquiry has even been begun. The Noble Lord will no doubt correct me if I have exaggerated. I hope I have, but even if I am only approximately right, surely that lamentable condition of affairs must be quickly improved. How can that be done?

I believe that three things are required, in regard to each of which His Majesty's Government can play a leading part. The first is to propagate at home and abroad, a wholly new conception in the Governments, particularly the Governments of the overseas countries, of this question of the immigration of refugees. Since 1931 the refugee has been the first victim of the economic crisis. He is always the first man to lose his job, and always and everywhere unemployment has become a factor governing the retention of existing, or preventing the admission of new, refugees. It is understandable enough and, as I think, justified in old and thickly populated countries like our own. How can we admit very large numbers of refugees when we have great numbers of unemployed?

But the situation really is radically different for the new and undeveloped countries of the world. I mention no names, but there are many countries where the population could be, with great advantage to all concerned and to the people who now live there themselves, three, four, 10 times what it is to-day, countries where a large-scale entry of new population, with adequate capital to launch it, might start, as indeed it has started in Palestine in recent years, a new wave of prosperity which these countries have not known for many years. To such countries as these the refugees would not be a liability; they would be an asset.

Indeed the history of every forced migration, from the days of the Huguenots onwards, has proved that this is true. Even in this country 11,000 refugees, who have come to stay have given new employment to 15,000 British subjects. You can see it on a far greater scale in Greece, where the coming of 1,500,000 refugees in 1922 was greeted with the most acute apprehension, but Greece to-day is economically a far stronger and more prosperous country than she was then. The refugees brought in the production of tobacco, sultanas, raisins, silk, and a large-scale fishing industry. They drained marshes, irrigated desert land, and developed the country, large parts of which had been allowed to go to waste.

So it might be with these German Jews, Czechs, Spaniards and others to-day in many countries. They are magnificent material, clever, industrious and highly skilled. Indeed from a broad point of view the essential fact in the whole refugee situation is that the finest brains in the world can be bought in the market for almost nothing, and by the large-scale infiltration of doctors, engineers, and other specialists the less developed countries could raise the whole standard of living of their peoples and by large-scale settlement schemes new countries could be opened up by the people who went there and who want only to be allowed to cultivate the ground in order that they and their children may be able to live.

I believe that the Government, the Noble Lord, and the High Commissioner of the League could render a signal service if they would propagate this imaginative constructive view of the problem by all the means in their power. They might start at home with the Colonial Office, which I think could do with a little stimulus in this regard. Both in public and in private, in their speeches in the Evian Committee and in the Council of the Assembly of the League, I believe they could do very much to put this view across, and I believe it is from a vivid, ever-present sense of the wasteful folly of the present situation that the dynamic power of settlement schemes must come, as it came through Dr. Nansen 17 years ago. That dynamic power is important, but it will not avail unless the necessary capital can be found. With such material, with such openings as there are, the restless enterprising capitalists of the nineteenth century would have put up the money, started these enterprises, settled the refugees and made a handsome profit for themselves. In these degenerate days we must find the capital in other ways, and without any question the Governments will have to help.

I want to suggest two minor measures by which a great deal could be done to find the money. They are both urged on the attention of Governments in the last annual report of the governing body of the Nansen office. The first is the introduction of a surcharged postage stamp in favour of the refugees. This has actually been done in Norway and in France. I expect the Noble Lord has seen the stamps. The Governments print them and they bear an extra charge of 1d. They are sold in the post offices and they are bought by those who voluntarily desire to buy them. The Governments hand the proceeds of the 1d. to the Nansen office. Those countries furnish from this source only an annual revenue of £4,000. If our Government would introduce such a stamp, with the feelings of our people towards the refugees and with the immense postal correspondence that we have, the revenue would be much greater and, if the Government could induce the United States to do the same, as I believe they could, if they could persuade the 32 Governments in the Evian Committee to do the same, they might raise a revenue of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands a year, and they would do it without the addition of a single penny of taxation on our people here.

The second proposal is in the same order of ideas. It is the extension of the system of the Nansen stamp. to the Nansen passport. Refugees who can afford it pay five gold francs a year for the renewal of their Nansen passport. Hundreds of thousands of refugees could afford to pay that small sum. The system is actually in force in France, Norway, Great Britain and a few other countries. If the Noble Lord and the Government could persuade the United States and the 32 Governments in the Evian Committee to adopt this system, again a very big revenue might result. I think that with that revenue, and with what came from the surcharged postage stamps, over a period of years, a large-scale work of infiltration could be carried through. But there would have to be for large-scale settlement schemes big public loans, backed, at least in part, by the Governments, and backed with a definite Government guarantee that the interest and sinking fund would be repaid. I cannot conceive that the loans needed, in view of the number of refugees, will be less than £10,000,000. I cannot believe that the Government guarantee will have to be less than 50 per cent. Some people may say it is no use asking for the loans till you have the settlement plans. I think the plans might be more speedily produced if the money had already been found. In any case I urge that such loans would not be a total loss. The refugees, when settled, might turn out to be a very good investment. In any case a considerable part of the money would be repaid. I hope the Noble Lord will be able to give us encouragement in this regard to-day.

Thirdly and lastly, there is the question of: administration. You are trying to take hundreds of thousands of helpless, destitute people from one country to other countries and to start them in new careers. It is a great administrative problem; it is an international problem; it cannot be dealt with by one government alone, or by a number of governments acting in groups of two or three—it requires an international administrative machine; and I say from bitter experience that, unless that machine exists, the practical difficulties will be immeasurably increased. Under this heading I want to draw the Noble Lord's attention to several points.

The first is that, by a decision of the Council of the League of Nations or of the Evian Committee—and I hope he can give us an assurance on this matter —all categories of refugees, Czechs, Spaniards, all the past, present and future refugees, will be placed under the authority and protection of Sir Herbert Emerson, either in his capacity as High Commissioner of the League or as Director of the Evian Committee. It is grotesque that certain categories should still be outside his scope; it is grotesque, wasteful and unjust. Secondly, I want to urge on the Noble Lord that the system of the Nansen passport should be extended to every refugee, of whatever category, who wants it. It may seem a little thin—a non-national certificate, a validity limited in both time and space; but, to the refugee, a Nansen passport is very often the beginning of salvation. I have read a statement made about it by an American student of the subject. He says: It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death, and that scores of people have blown out their brains because they could not get it; but there is no doubt that, by and large, the Nansen passport is the greatest thing that has happened for the individual refugee; it returns to him his lost identity. I hope the Noble Lord is going to see that every refugee who wants a Nansen passport shall get it. In the next place, I submit that Sir Herbert Emerson ought to have what I do not think he has today, if I am rightly informed, namely, his own offices in all the countries connected with this problem—in all the countries neighbouring on Germany, Czechoslovakia and Spain; in Poland, Rumania, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, France, in all the countries where there may be openings for refugees. In the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Canada, Australia, San Domingo, the Latin-American Republics, Madagascar, if you like, Sir Herbert Emerson should have his own offices, with his own competent representatives, of status sufficient to treat with Government Departments, representing both the League of Nations, as I should hope, and the Evian Committee, closely linked to Sir Herbert and to each other by a full and ready service of mutual information, furnished with proper clerical assistance and with the funds necessary for dealing with current matters as they arise. The function of these offices would be to despatch refugees, to choose the groups that would go, to look for openings, to help refugees on their journey, to get them their visas, to give them the protection and assistance that are needed when they arrive. I say with the utmost confidence, and with, I think, a complete knowledge of the facts, that without such as international administrative machine Dr. Nansen could never have got even a small part of the results which he obtained. I think that, if I could have shown the Noble Lord the Nansen Office in Constantinople, Belgrade or Athens when it was in full work, I could have convinced him that what I say is true.

This international administrative machine cannot be supplied by private charitable organisations, or by the diplomatic machinery of Foreign Offices and trade missions abroad; it means a special service of trained and able men. The men can be found; I could find them. If Sir Herbert Emerson were given £20,000 or £30,000 on his Budget for this purpose, I would guarantee that it would quadruple his hopes of a practical result. These are the suggestions that I want to lay before the Noble Lord, and I hope he will be able to tell us that he and his colleagues will propagate the view that the refugee problem is not a matter of sentiment and charity, but a broad political and economic problem, and that he and the Government will try, here in the Colonial Office, with the Dominions, and in distant countries abroad, to urge that an imaginative and constructive view should be taken of the opportunity which this refugee problem seems to afford. I hope he will tell us that he will strive, in the ways I have suggested and by other means, to find the money without which nothing can be done, and that, through the League of Nations and the Evian Committee, he will build up the international administration that is needed if practical results are to be obtained. Above all, I hope he will tell us that the period of delay is over, and that the Government's action will be swift and bold, both for the sake of the refugees and in the interests, moral and material, of us all.