In 1956, I became a child refugee. I forgot about that fact for decades as I integrated into society in the UK. But now, as refugees are threatened with deportation to Rwanda and hundreds are to be detained in unsafe vessels, memories of my childhood as a refugee keep coming back. I get highly emotional, when I imagine traumatised people seeking sanctuary from the horrors they suffered in their home country, being vilified.
When I read in the media that a government Minister, Robert Jenrick, had cartoons removed from the Kent Intake Unit, which processes lone children and those arriving on small boats with their families, “so as not to make the centre too welcoming,” I remembered how my family was received in Austria.
I am an illegal immigrant
We came across the border illegally. Just like now in the UK, there were no legal routes for refugees from communist rule behind the Iron Curtain. The citizens were imprisoned in their own countries. A wide no-go zone meant nobody could travel within 30–40 miles of the border. Hundreds died every year trying to flee across minefields, barbed wire and avoiding armed guards with dogs. Watchtowers lit the no-go zone dividing democratic Austria from USSR occupied Hungary.
Even in the 70s, the circling lights of the watchtowers created a scary atmosphere whenever we drove across the border for family visits. If people were caught, they were often simply shot or taken back to Budapest to be tried and imprisoned in Hungary, or sent to salt mines in Siberia. I met a Hungarian ex-army officer who had been in a salt mine and his fingers were paralysed for life from the frostbite he had suffered. Despite knowing all the repercussions if one was caught, my mother decided it was worth all the risk involved in crossing an already closing border with her three young children. We were lucky. See my earlier article:
Kindness by a farmer
At our arrival just across the border in Austria, we were taken in by a farmer and his family. They were not rich, but shared what they had with us. Their kindness made a huge difference to my very nervous mother and us confused and exhausted children. We were fed and given dry clothes from their own children’s wardrobe and put onto a train to Vienna.
Reception in Vienna
At the train station ‘Ostbahnhof’ where people were arriving from the East, the Austrian government and charities ran a reception centre. There were immigration officials, social workers, nurses, nuns and other volunteers to welcome the refugees. They were “processed” according to what their plans were. My family had planned to emigrate to the US and my mother was later given advice on how to get the right paperwork. But first, on arrival my family was immediately taken into a warm room (this was a very cold December) and we were given blankets, clothes and food. My sister and I were given dolls and kind nuns played with us while our mother was in conversation with officials.
The UK is better than this
It was confusing and traumatic for us children, despite being with our mother and the warm welcome we received. Every year, thousands of refugee children arrive in the UK without the comfort of parents or guardians. What it must be like for these unaccompanied children, who have travelled across continents and have lost their parents or other carers, I can just try to imagine. To make their arrival in the UK unwelcoming and to even allow some of these young people to disappear (see media report) seems barbaric to me. I thought the UK was better than this.
In one of my WhatsApp groups, a friend posted a link to a project by the Refugee Council which tries to counter the misplaced reaction by our government to refugees, including the cruelty to unaccompanied children.
9,300 cartoons to 9,300 children
In addition to a campaign “cartoons not cruelty” to restore cartoons at the children’s refugee centres in Kent where the Disney cartoons have been removed, there is a project which sends postcards of kindness to refugee children. Rima Amin, the Cartoons Not Cruelty campaign starter, told the Guardian, “To say that the cartoons were ‘not age appropriate’ fails to recognise the 9,300* under-14s that arrived in the UK just last year. That’s why we’re sending 9,300 postcards.“
“This action is inspired by children at City of Sanctuary UK, schools who drew and sent cartoons in response to the cartoons being removed. The Refugee Council is supporting us by distributing the postcards, so they can bring hope to where it is needed most, to say that we see you. And that you deserve better.”
Once I have wiped my eyes and blown my nose, I will send a message to a refugee child. How about you?
*Editor’s Note. In fact-checking this, we note that the website of the Refugee Council states that 5,152 unaccompanied children applied for asylum last year, the majority of them being aged 14-17.