First-time voters proud of UK refugee legacy

Far from home: A Syrian boy searches for his mother as he and other refugees cross into Jordan © PA

A large majority of young voters, a poll shows, want Britain to remain a safe haven for those fleeing violence and persecution. Will their views counter the rise in anti-immigrant feeling?

Whether they have fled from war, famine or persecution, the stories of refugees are often depressingly similar. It is a heartbreaking catalogue of destroyed homes, broken families, misery and terror. One refugee, 25-year-old Hassan Al-Mousaoy, who arrived in the UK in 2006 after his father was killed in Iraq, recalled that the killing at home 'was so common it was like drinking water; bodies would be piled up in the backs of cars like sardines to be buried.’

This week, a YouGov poll has revealed that the overwhelming majority of young voters in the UK believe Britain should continue to offer a safe haven to people like Hassan and others like him.

The poll, released to coincide with Refugee Week, examined the attitudes of the 3.3 million young people eligible to vote for the first time in next May's general election. Eight out of ten were proud of Britain’s legacy of protecting refugees, and three-quarters want the government to maintain the UK’s reputation for offering sanctuary to people in crisis.

Britain has a long history of providing refuge to those in desperate need. From 1685 onwards, around 50,000 Huguenots — French protestants persecuted by Louis XIV — found sanctuary in Britain. Around 250,000 Belgians found refuge from the German invasion during the First World War, 4,000 Basque children found shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and in the 1930s tens of thousands of European Jews, escaping persecution by the Nazis, settled in Britain. And people from across the world continue to seek asylum in the UK.

The civil war in Syria has put the issue back in the spotlight. Since the civil war began in 2011, more than nine million people have fled their homes. The British government initially refused to accept any refugees, concerned that public opinion seemed to be against foreigners — whether economic migrants or refugees — settling in the UK.

Earlier this year, the government finally agreed to accept 500 Syrians — but many say that this figure is too low.

'Generation welcome'

Some say that it is important to keep the distinction clear between refugees and economic migrants. While it is right to accept those in desperate need of sanctuary, every country is entitled to protect its citizens’ jobs and wellbeing — this should be a priority. Not everyone who claims asylum deserves it.

But others argue it would be disgraceful if the UK lost its reputation as a safe haven for refugees because of a rise in anti-immigrant feeling. Previous refugees have thrived and brought many cultural and economic benefits. Moreover, helping people in a crisis is a moral duty and the government should listen to the opinion of this new generation of voters.

You Decide

  1. Should Britain continue to be a safe haven for refugees?
  2. Why is media coverage of refugees and asylum seekers usually so negative?

Activities

  1. In groups, design an infographic which displays some common falsehoods about refugees in the UK on one side, and the true facts and figures on the other.
  2. Using expert links, research a famous household name who started life in the UK as a refugee. Write a brief presentation explaining who they are and how they contributed to society.

Some People Say...

“A country must look after its own people first.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this poll significant to me?
The poll is important because it shows that young people might well have a serious effect on important issues if they use their vote next year. Groups that work on behalf of refugees have been cheered by the poll’s findings and are urging the government to reaffirm their commitment to asylum seekers, and not to bow to the pressure of anti-immigrant feeling.
Why do some people oppose accepting refugees?
Some people in the UK are alarmed at the numbers of economic migrants arriving in the UK and this negative feeling has spilled over to refugees and asylum seekers. While concerns about how the volume of immigrants can affect public services may be justified, many facts and figures surrounding both economic migrants and refugees are often widely distorted.

Word Watch

Huguenots
Huguenots had been persecuted from the 16th century onwards in France and many fled abroad. They brought skills like silk-weaving and banking to other countries. Seven of the 24 founders of the Bank of England in 1694 were Huguenots.
Belgians
One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the German army during the First World War.
Basque
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Just under a year later, the bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country in northern Spain killed hundreds of civilians, and triggered appeals from the Basque government for foreign nations to provide shelter for children.
Economic migrants
People who move to another country to work. Refugees are not economic migrants.

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