As the imperial German army advanced towards France at the start of the first world war, a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of them children, escaped across the English Channel to find safety in Britain. It was a display of compassion on a scale unmatched in British history, and which would go on to inspire one of the nation’s best-loved TV characters. Yet a new poll reveals the public is completely unaware of this chapter in our history, writes Henry Hill.
The poll, conducted by YouGov on behalf of Refugee Week, asked people to select the single biggest inflow of refugees to Britain from a list of options. Nobody chose the correct answer, despite the Belgians being only one of seven options. Instead respondents leaned towards more recent instances: a fifth (20%) thought it was the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin and a further 17% thought it was Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.
In 1914, the British government offered “victims of the war the hospitality of the British nation.” The government took responsibility for their reception, registration and maintenance while local authorities helped to find housing.
The story of one such refugee, a retired policeman, is likely to have been the inspiration behind Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, whom David Suchet turned into a fixture of British television in the long-running ITV adaptation which came to an end last year.
Suchet, whose own great-grandparents fled anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire for a new life in Paris, is supporting Refugee Week this year. He said:
“Refugee Week is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the contribution that refugees continue to make to Britain.
“My character Hercule Poirot was a Belgian refugee. He had that gritty determination shared by so many refugees as they try to make a new life for themselves after fleeing persecution.
“Poirot’s story is, of course, fictitious but it reflects a true story that hundreds of thousands of Belgians found sanctuary in Britain. Poirot sometimes struggled to fit in but he made the effort to learn English and worked hard to assist the law in fighting injustice.”
This year’s Refugee Week is focusing on children and young people, and the poll also asked people about another key moment in the UK’s refugee history: the kindertransport programme, which helped thousands of children to escape Nazi Germany. Only a quarter (26%) of people knew what the kindertransport programme was, with 70% answering “Don’t Know”.
Refugee Week’s Chair, Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren, said:
“Since the first world war, Britain has taken in refugee children and provided them with a safe place to flourish, and, as adults to contribute to our culture, our communities and our economy.
“It’s surprising that so few people know the story of Britain’s generosity to Belgian refugees in 1914. Refugee Week aims to celebrate our tradition of protecting refugees and the benefits that refugees continue to bring to our society.”
Another question found only half (51%) of young people correctly identified a refugee as someone fleeing persecution in their home country. Others thought a refugee could be someone who lost their home in a natural disaster, or looking for a better job or standard of living.
To increase understanding among young people, the British Red Cross is launching a new comic from renowned graphic novelist Karrie Fransman as part of Refugee Week, telling the real story of one refugee who has found protection in the UK.