As the world’s refugee crisis is once again bringing the challenges of mass encampment to Europe, the camps of Britain’s recent past could serve as a warning to today’s politicians.
Few think of Britain as a land of camps. Camps happen ‘elsewhere’: in Greece, in Palestine, in the global South. Yet over the course of the 20th century, dozens of refugee camps in Britain housed Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese. Throughout the century, British officials put tens of thousands of people – sometimes even their own citizens – in camps. This experience raised difficult questions that continue to plague the care of refugees. Were refugees in Britain ‘free’? Could they leave and enter camps as they wished? Would they be allowed to settle where they wanted? The mobility of refugees was restricted, but never entirely controlled.
Refugee camps in Britain were never just for refugees. Many were peopled with British squatters, as refugees shared space – willingly or not – with Britons who had been ousted from their homes by bombs and poverty. The camps jumbled together different types of refugees: those who fled the crises of war and empire. Hungarians and Anglo-Egyptians competed for space when they disembarked in 1956, victims of, respectively, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nasser’s expulsion of British subjects from Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Ugandan Asians arrived after Idi Amin’s expulsion order in 1972 to find Poles still encamped from three decades earlier.