Last week it looked fairly sunny so I took my mother for a walk over Cannock Chase. It’s very nice, birch and pine forest, open heath and. You should go there sometime. Anyway, we went where we always seem to go, to Marquis Drive, where there is a visitors centre and where there used to be an RAF training camp where she used to work many years ago. September sunshine isn’t to be trusted, so dodging showers we educated ourselves at the visitors centre. There isn’t much about heather and fallow deer I can’t tell you, believe me. Then, on an out of the way information board I found myself reading about Hungarian refugees.
Augmented by a little later research I discovered that my home town (one of the least diverse towns in England) played a significant role in the resettlement of refugees in the aftermath of the 1956 rising. In 1956 Hungary seemed on the brink of leaving the Warsaw pact before Soviet tanks rolled in to restore order. 200,000 people fled, mainly to Austria and then-Yugoslavia.
They sort of came under the protection of UNHCR. ‘Sort of’ because the refugee convention, still only 5 years old, was assumed to only relate to the refugee crisis following WW2. After all, the brave new post war world wouldn’t have another refugee crisis, would it? To make matters worse, UNHCR had no director, with 3 assistants acting up to cover a vacancy. Genuine humanitarian principles combined with a political desire to show up the Soviets and it was agreed they were refugees. That’s a key point in human rights history, this is where the 1951 convention widens its scope to include all refugees everywhere. The scale of arrivals was such that individual registration was impossible, so all were accepted as refugees en bloc. Austria opened its border and Western Europe divvied them up. 20,000 our do came to Britain and most of them passed through the hastily reopened ex RAF camp on Cannock Chase. I lived here most of my life and I never knew.
How many ironies? I’ll just pick one. Hungary has built a 108 mile long razor wire fence along its southern border and is today holding a referendum on refusing to accept an EU quota of Syrian refugees. This would be a share of 160,000 people, 40,000 less than the number of Hungarians Europe accepted in ’56. And let’s not get too smug. Britain opted out of a European sharing approach long before opting out of Europe itself. I guess I’m not the only one who had forgotten this bit of history.