28 July 2021

Marking 70 years of UK refugee protection

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Seventy years ago today, the UK and other countries signed the UN Refugee Convention. Steve Ballinger reports from an event that brought refugees from across those seven decades together, to celebrate this proud history of refugee protection.

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Pictured, left to right, standing: Linh Vu (arrived 1979), Bharat Gheewala (arrived 1964), Paul Lorber (arrived 1968), Baraa Halabieh (arrived 2016), Darius Nasimi (arrived 1999), Abu-Zayd Abdulrahman (arrived 2004), Karim Shirin (arrived 1994), Remzije Duli (arrived 1991), Mukund Nathwani (arrived 1972), Ibrahim Dogus (arrived 1991), Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi (arrived 1999), Tom Leimdorfer (arrived 1956), Aloysius Ssali (arrived 2005), Tesfai Berhane Sebhat (arrived 1981). Sitting (L-R): Gillian Slovo (arrived 1964), Dr Saad Maida (arrived 2010), George Szirtes (arrived 1956), Hong Dam (arrived 1980).

Seventy years ago today, after the horrors of the Second World War, the UK and other countries signed the UN Refugee Convention – a promise to offer protection to those fleeing war and persecution. Since then it has saved thousands of people’s lives.

To mark the anniversary, refugees from across those seven decades came together to celebrate this proud history – and to re-make that promise to welcome those who most need our help.

Refugee protection meant everything to us as a family and to me as a child,” said George Szirtes, who came to the UK from Hungary as a young boy after the Soviet response to the Hungarian revolution. “The memory of it is still strong. And I would like that protection to be extended to other people.”

Signature of the 1951 Refugee Convention in Geneva, Switzerland / the three seated men (l-r): Mr. John Humphrey, Director of the Human Rights Division; Mr. Knud Larsen (Denmark) President of the Conference; Dr. G.V. van Heuven Goedhart, High Commissioner for Refugees / copyright Arni / UN Archives / August 1, 1951 ;

The Together With Refugees coalition, of which British Future is a member, brought refugees from across the decades and all over the world together to re-create the iconic image of the Refugee Convention being signed in 1951 – but with refugees taking the place of diplomats.

Instead of a UN document, they signed an orange heart, a symbol of support for refugees.

You can find out more about the Together With Refugees coalition at www.togetherwithrefugees.org.uk

Gillian Slovo also arrived in the UK as a child, fleeing South Africa in 1964. Both her parents were active in the anti-apartheid movement – her mother, Ruth First, had just been held for 117 days in solitary detention when they left the country. Gillian recalled how finding a place of safety brought an end to her fears that they would be separated:


The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I wasn’t in South Africa – that I didn’t have to be worried when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa the police were constant visitors and there was a constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time. It didn’t feel like that in England.”

Mukund Nathwani came to England in 1972 from Uganda, aged 23. He had been a teacher in the city of Mbale but fled, with many others, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin announced the expulsion of the country’s Asian population. “I had to leave Uganda because I had no choice,” he said. “If I’d stayed there any longer I wouldn’t be alive today. Having arrived safely, we thought ‘we’ve got a new life’ – people were welcoming and we thought ‘well, we’ve come to the right place.’

Aloysius Ssali came to the UK in 2003 to study but when he returned to Uganda in 2005 he was captured and tortured because of his sexuality. He still had six months left on his student visa, so he fled to the UK and later sought asylum. He said:

“Celebrating 70 years of the Refugee Convention, especially for someone like me, a refugee in this wonderful country, I don’t take that for granted. I am who I am now because of the British people, they granted me refugee status and gave me another chance to live.”

The backgrounds of those taking part in the event tells a story of 70 years of the UK offering safety to people fleeing war and tyranny: from dissidents escaping political repression in Communist Eastern Europe of the 50s and 60s to families fleeing ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 90s, or war in Syria in more recent years.

Dr Saad Maida (37), who also took part in the photograph, is a doctor working in the NHS and now lives in Leamington Spa.  He arrived in the UK in 2010 to study and was given refugee status in 2014 because he needed protection from the war and violence in Syria.  He said:

“The thing that made me feel most welcomed, when I came to Britain, was when I was able to work and pay back to society. I’ve always felt pride about being able to serve the public by working for the NHS.

“It’s a great milestone, to be able to celebrate and to pause and reflect on what the UN Convention has meant for hundreds of thousands of refugees from then until now. I carry the travel document that says on it 28 July 1951.”

New ICM polling for British Future today revealed that six in ten people (59%) feel proud that Britain has protected refugees since it signed the Convention in 1951. It’s a tradition that we must uphold in the future.