How many of us have wept for Ukraine and its people over the past three weeks? What is it that brings tears to our eyes, as we see the poor mothers, teenagers and elderly, parting from their menfolk with their children, embarking on a dangerous journey of misery and privation? Sometimes my tears are of anger, rage that Putin fooled the Russian people for so long into thinking that he was defending them against an enemy intent on invading and destroying them. Rage that he has deceived them that Ukrainians are Nazis and drug addicts subjugating ethnic Russians in what is historically Russian territory. Rage that he convinced them that they had democracy so long as he retained power, that his strength was their security.
Sometimes my tears are tears of frustration, frustration that there is little we can do to help, that we are impotent in the face of his invasion. Frustration that NATO is sitting on its hands as the Ukrainian nation and its people are systematically destroyed. Frustration at the UK's failure to allow refugees to enter.
Sometimes my tears are for the future of humanity, as we see the senseless slaughter of civilians, destruction of buildings, and the fires and explosions. As we have been worrying about our own carbon footprints, I try to get my head round the carbon cost of this war, the oxygen and resources being converted to carbon dioxide before our eyes every time a shell explodes, a house burns, a tank moves.
As we have been trying to control a deadly pandemic, I remember that wars and associated migration have been historically the most important way of spreading infectious disease and wonder how big a part this has played in stalling the Russian advance. We are watching the four horsemen: war, injustice, pestilence, and climate catastrophe, galloping together through Europe.
But mostly, my tears are tears of sympathy, sympathy for the families separated by enforced migration and by death, by destruction of the way of life they believed was to be theirs after decades of subjugation and tyranny, now snatched away by this new Hitler. We feel for those women, for whom Burns spoke:
When day is gone and night is come,
And a' folk bound to sleep,
I think on him that's far awa
The lee-lang night, and weep,
The lee-lang night, and weep.
Tears for the mothers clutching their babies, and for the old grandmothers weeping as their daughters flee and sons die at war. And, as I see newsreel of Putin, cowering in his Kremlin bunker, my tears turn back to tears of anger. Can his people free themselves?
However, weeping is for the dark hours, the dark times. It characterises us as empathetic humans, able to feel the pain of others. Now the days are lengthening, there is light in the sky, and it is time for action by the UK Government that we can be proud of. I have heard ministers speak of Britain's proud record in helping refugees, even as they have only accepted a few hundred while our small neighbour Ireland has already accepted 2,000, and Poland, Romania and Hungary hundreds of thousands. This is another myth of British exceptionalism.
Before the last great expansionist war, Hitler drove tens of thousand of Jews from his country and many were lucky enough to find a welcome here. Among them were academics, artists, writers and musicians who had fallen foul of Hitler because of their success. But when war was declared, the British Government under Churchill rounded up these anti-Nazi victims of persecution and interned them behind barbed wire. Some died after U-boat attack while being transported to Canada but others were imprisoned in the Isle of Man, sometimes alongside Nazi prisoners of war. All these German refugees and other German nationals who had long settled in Britain were regarded as potential spies and locked up. Chaotic bureaucracy kept some confined for years.
There is fortunately a better side to this story. In contrast to the British Government in 1940, the Manx people and the soldiers sent to guard them were humane and saw the imprisoned 'enemy aliens' for what they were; the regime was relaxed, the prisoners setting up a university in exile, all the teaching being in English. The arts and music flourished. This story is told in an excellent and well-documented book, The Island of Extraordinary Captives
, by Simon Parkin (Sceptre, 2022).
Many after the war made major contributions to British culture and the sciences. Refugees are self-selected for courage and initiative. One of these captives, I knew well. His German Jewish family saw the rise of Hitler and sent him to school in England, following him as it became obvious that the alternative was death in the gas chambers.
Ernest Jellinek did well at school and won a place at Oxford to study medicine, but on his 18th birthday a local policeman arrived at the school on his bicycle and arrested him. Under guard, he was put on a ferry to the Isle of Man where he found himself at a very different university behind barbed wire in a lodging house. He quite enjoyed it but after 18 months was offered release if he joined the army. He became an officer and was seriously wounded by a German shell while leading his armoured car section, losing an eye. He was rehabilitated in an Oxford hospital, eventually taking up his place in the university. Like many other refugees, he became a successful and sympathetic member of his profession, in his case as a distinguished neurologist in Edinburgh.
My wife is Manx and remembers this episode of the imprisoned aliens, so I have long known about it and have wondered how the British Government and Churchill could have been so insensitive, indeed stupid. But recently, their contemporary successors' behaviour over Brexit and their current efforts to hinder Ukrainian refugees from getting visas to enter our country is evidence of a latent xenophobia, a fear of foreigners in the hearts of those wealthy people who rule us, many of them from immigrant families themselves. They should be ashamed and take note that ordinary British people are giving money to refugee charities and offering accommodation. We expect better of our government.
The refugee crisis is here to stay and, with war and climate change, will inevitably get worse. It is a terrible human crisis for the refugees but for us it is an opportunity to show that Britain is better than this. These brave people deserve all the support we can give them and will repay our hospitality manyfold, as did my friend Ernest, whether they must settle here or are able to return to their own country in happier times. We must do all we can to let the UK Government know how we feel.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own