Basque refugees at Southampton by Frank Rust, 23 May 1937, Daily Mail

By Alan Sparrow

The ebb and flow of migration is familiar to many generations, some of them having arrived as immigrants themselves.

The situation the government finds itself in today is not uncommon, but the figures we see today dwarf those of previous arrivals - the 745,000 in 2022 (ONS) is a record. Refugees such as the Huguenots from France and Belgium who arrived in the 17th century, escaping persecution for their religious beliefs. Around 50,000 Huguenots arrived and were respected for their skills as silk weavers, silversmiths, hat and wig makers, and were praised for bringing added value.

In the 20th century almost 50,000 Ugandan Asians were expelled by the Ugandan leader, Idi Amin, and around 28,000 were given a safe refuge in the United Kingdom. Research from King’s College London found that they arrived in the UK at a time of racial tension, with considerable prejudice among the broader population, and were not at first widely welcomed. Being from a minority ethnic group, an immigrant and a refugee might have been a triple disadvantage. This has not proved to be the case, and in the event the group has done as well as or better than the rest of the population.

Possibly less known is the case of the niños vascos, refugee children.  On May 23,1937 nearly 4,000 arrived at Southampton on board SS Habana from Bilbao, refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1937-1939), and the largest mass arrival of refugees ever in UK history. 

The war was escalating with mass bombing of the Basque region by Italian and German planes who were supporters of the Nationalists led by General Franco. The Basque City of Guernica was badly damaged by bombers and as much as three quarters of the city was destroyed with hundreds killed or wounded in what is thought to be the first saturation bombing of a civilian population.

The British government had signed a non-intervention agreement with Spain but as hostilities increased the it agreed to accept the refugee children as long as there was no cost to the British taxpayer. Designed and built for 400 passengers, the Habana left port with over 4000 on board, 3860 children, 95 teachers,120 helpers, 15 Catholic priests and two British doctors, leaving behind the children's parents and families. The government argued that supporting the child refugees could violate the new agreement and insisted that the Basque Children's Committee guarantee 10 shillings per week (50 pence, equivalent to £30 today) for the care and education of each child. The Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, local councils, trade unions and thousands of volunteers took charge of their accommodation and ongoing needs and they were cared for in around 100  “colonies”. 

At the end of 1937 repatriation began and by the end of 1938 2,175 had been returned to Spain, with about 250 remaining in the UK for the rest of their lives. This haunting photograph was taken by photographer Frank Rust. Born in Whitechapel, Rust worked for the Daily Mail for 50 years and retired in 1968. An innovator, he helped develop the “Wonder Rapid Sequence Camera” which took 20 images a second. He died in 1991, aged 87.






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