Jeremy Seabrook, 'The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny'

IssueJune 2009
Review by Jo Wilding

This is a book about the way refugee academics have been either rescued by their British counterparts or received and treated on seeking asylum in the UK. In particular it focuses on the work of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) – originally formed in 1933 as the Academic Assistance Council.

The book is divided into three parts: “Then”, about the rescue of expelled or threatened (mainly Jewish) academics from Nazi Germany and neighbouring countries; “Until”, a short chapter about refugees from apartheid South Africa and Reagan-ised Central America; and “Now”, about refugees coming to the UK more recently from Iraq and Afghanistan among other countries.

“Then” details the astonishing contributions made by refugee academics – some of the finest minds of their generation – and discusses the possibility that the experience of exile may have contributed to these.

Among the stories of sanctuary for a few are personal accounts of the disgraceful internment of scientists rescued from Germany, and the pervasive view that refugees should be accepted not because of their need for protection but because of their value to the UK.

I found the “Now” chapter frustrating because each individual story was chopped into at least three parts. No doubt the author had his reasons for breaking up the stories that way but it didn’t work for me.

On the plus side, the book does give an insight into the way refugees are treated: that only the lucky few are able to “prove” their experiences; that they are dispersed to live in strange towns where there may be no support or they may encounter racism; and that they are denied the opportunity to use their skills, training and knowledge.

As an immigration barrister I am all too aware of the increasing numbers of asylum seekers unable to access decent legal advice or representation because of the cuts to legal aid, as well as those denied basic subsistence support because they did not manage to claim asylum within 72 hours.

Overall this is an interesting and useful book which may help provide readers with new arguments against the myth of “soft-touch Britain”. No one in society is more in need of support than asylum seekers, particularly those who have been predictably disbelieved by the Home Office.

Topics: Culture, Refugees
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