The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny

Margot Finn welcomes a timely study of the UK's role in sheltering academic refugees

June 4, 2009

Published to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), Jeremy Seabrook's The Refuge and the Fortress surveys the UK's role as a place of asylum since the 1930s and provides a probing analysis of the challenges faced by scholarly refugees in the globalised 21st century.

At once a celebration and an indictment, the book exposes the stereotypes that animate public opinion and press reportage by assessing government policy and philanthropic endeavour alongside biographical snapshots of refugee academics who have found a home (or a home of sorts) in Britain.

The book is divided into three substantive sections. "Then" details the forced exodus of academics from Germany and Austria under Nazism, and the establishment in 1933 of the Academic Assistance Council, renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) in 1936, and Cara in 1998.

"Until" sketches the changing landscape of academic asylum-seeking in Britain from the 1950s to the 1990s, decades that saw the SPSL struggle to help new constituencies of refugee academics from Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and sub-Saharan Africa.

"Now" explores the contemporary crises that confront refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iran, Iraq and the Sudan in the midst of domestic fears stoked by the West's ongoing "War on Terror".

Seabrook's survey of Cara's activities provides a powerful reminder of the relative ease with which a small cadre of high-minded academics and their allies could effect change in the close-knit world of the British political elite.

Within weeks of learning of the removal of German-Jewish professors from their posts in 1933, William Beveridge mobilised a constellation of scholars including Lord Rutherford, John Maynard Keynes, Gilbert Murray and Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the president of the Royal Society. Establishing a register of potential posts at British universities, they provided modest grants to allow academic refugees to continue their research careers in the UK.

By 1945, the SPSL had 2,541 scholars on its register, and had helped many British universities to appoint refugee scholars. But not all academics responded favourably to its appeals. "Dear Lord Rutherford, I received a communication from you ... appealing to augment the £28,000 already being spent on finding jobs for exiles who seem to have been unworthy of their own country," one respondent wrote. "I could have contemplated with equanimity the spending of £28,000 to keep them out, but I conceive it an act of treachery to spend a penny to bring them to deprive our countrymen of posts in an overcrowded profession."

Others were more generous. Staff at University College London and the London School of Economics donated 1-3 per cent of their salaries to support the refugees, allowing scholars whose work would later prove central to new research frontiers - Hans Krebs, Max Perutz and Nikolaus Pevsner among them - to establish stable, long-term careers in the UK.

The Cold War saw the SPSL struggle to adjust to changes to the refugee population and the higher education environment. University expansion and student radicalism challenged the deference to seniority that had earlier allowed the organisation's leaders to galvanise supporters so readily. SPSL assistance for Chilean, Argentine and African exiles was now dwarfed by the superior resources and dynamism of the World University Service (now Education Action), which focused on students rather than established academics.

Cara's constituents today are predominantly exiles from Islamic countries. Seabrook's evocative and often chilling life histories of the society's beneficiaries provide a powerful reminder of the costs of Fortress Britain's reluctance to welcome victims of contemporary extremist regimes. The sheer waste of academic talent that ensues - for the UK and the wider world - is sobering.

Only 43 UK universities currently support Cara's activities. Readers of Seabrook's important book will want to remedy this situation, which stands in sharp contrast to the sector's claim to champion intellectual freedom.

The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny

By Jeremy Seabrook

Palgrave Macmillan

288pp, £50.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9780230218772 and 218789

Published 12 November 2008

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