HC Deb 04 August 1939 vol 350 cc2892-906
Miss Rathbone

I want to draw attention to a question closely associated with our foreign policy because it concerns the victims of that policy or, shall we say, our lack of policy and our desertion of the principle of collective security. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) said the other day that the attitude of the Government was equivalent to saying "take your gas masks and go away with them" I would like to suggest that we should take something else besides our gas masks, and that is the thought that while we are enjoying ourselves by sea or mountain there are hundreds of thousands of men and women who are wandering about in the utmost destitution, many of them hiding by day many of them already in the hands of the Gestapo and being beaten up daily in concentration camps and prisons. Our degree of responsibility for their misfortunes varies greatly. For some groups there is a very direct responsibility, and I want particularly to draw the attention of the House to that group of these unhappy people for whom our responsibility is undeniable. I refer to the refugees from Czecho-Slovakia. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton East (Mr. Mander) has said something about it. No one is surely going to deny our responsibility. Only last October the Prime Minister said that His Majesty's Government were profoundly conscious of the great public spirit which the Czecho-Slovakian Government had shown, and he expressed the hope that the guaranteed loan of £30,000,000 would meet with a sypathetic and even generous response.

What has been the measure of our acknowledgment of the debt to the people of Czecho-Slovakia? In October the Government promised a guaranteed loan of £10,000,000, described as an advance to meet urgent needs, and quite obviously intending larger sums later. When it became clear that the new Czech Government was quite unable to resist the Berlin Government, His Majesty's Government rightly became anxious to safeguard anything which might be given to Czechoslovakia, and after long negotiations, occupying four months, the promise of a loan was transmuted into an arrangement by which £4,000,000 was to be a free gift earmarked for the use of refugees outside Czecho - Slovakia. The remaining £6,000,000 was to remain earmarked for the use of refugees who had settled inside Czecho-Slovakia, the understanding being that it was likely to be used in the meantime for such purposes as the construction of roads. The £8,000,000 loan and the £4,000,000 gift were to be for the benefit of refugees.

But by the time that arrangement was made it had become clear that it was merely a matter of months before the mutilated State would pass under the control of Berlin. Only six weeks after the arrangement had been made Hitler's army marched into Prague and there were thousands of people whose only offence was that they had stood up to Henlein. Obviously they could not safely remain within what was called the Protectorate. Several thousands of those people have already crossed the Polish Frontier and are living in Poland, to the great annoyance of the Poles, under threat of being sent back. Some are political refugees and some are Jews. What is to become of these people? It has become clear that the £4,000,000 grant is not sufficient to cover the whole number. The Committee responsible for Czecho-Slovakian refugees in this country has already budgeted for as many as it can take. Other countries which have taken Czecho-Slovakian refugees have already received some of that £4,000,000. What is to become of those who cannot be covered by that £4,000,000?

Let us remember that although our Government has no doubt been relieved of its promise to give the loan because there has ceased to be a Czecho-Slovakia and the new Protectorate is no place for sending the refugees, did it absolve them of the moral responsibility for the people to whom the original loan was to be made? We heard some time ago that it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer's intention to repay to the Treasury the £6,000,000, not merely the portion which remained unspent, but the amount which had been spent but which he could recover from Czech assets frozen in London. It appears that the Government intend to make a nice little economy out of the disaster which happened last March, a disaster for which we are not entirely exempt from responsibility, because we guaranteed the frontiers. We were unable to implement that guarantee, and because of that the situation of these new refugees arose—those who could no longer remain in a Bohemia which had. become part of the Reich.

Are the Government going to say, when the Home Office is asked for visas for them or for facilities to get them to Sweden or Canada or wherever it may be, "Very sorry, but we have spent as much as we can afford "? If the Government did that, would it not be exactly like this: It would be as though a rich man had been driving along in a powerful car and to prevent himself falling down a precipice had accidentally run into a crowd of people and killed some and mutilated others. In the first flush of compunction he takes out a £5 note and hands it to the ambulance driver, and says, "Please take these people to the hospital." The ambulance driver returns and says that he wants some more money in order to take the remainder of the mutilated people, but the rich man shrugs his shoulders and replies, "I am sorry I cannot afford any more." That is what we are doing with these refugees in Poland and Bohemia, who would be in safety if it had not been for the action we took over Czecho-Slovakia last year. Who would not be fighting for a country in which he believed rather than hiding in drains and forests, a skulking fugitive without a penny in his pocket, or being beaten up every day by steel rods, rubber truncheons and sandbags in concentration camps? Consider the position of these people. Let us ask ourselves whether we have not a responsibility for them? Can we go away on holiday saying that we have been very generous to Czechoslovakia, and that if a few more refugees are beaten up in concentration camps, we shall be very sorry, but we cannot help it, and cannot afford any more? I cannot believe that the Government and the British people can be happy about it.

I must not enlarge here on all the many aspects of the refugee question, as I would like to do. I will now only mention the question of refugees from Spain. There too we have a special responsibility, though rather different from and not so great perhaps as our responsibility for Czecho-Slovak refugees. Who can deny that the downfall and destruction of the Republican Army was due to our policy which held from them arms for their own defence? After the downfall of Spain nearly 250,000 of these refugees were received in camps in France, where the majority of them are still being retained at great expense to the French. We have made a certain monetary contribution which is trivial compared with what the French are spending. Would it not be a very good thing for ourselves if we did not allow all these men to rot in camps and in prisons. Who are they? They are men who, for 2½; years, have borne the burden of modern warfare. They have had experience of all forms of bombing, air-raid precautions and the rest. They are rotting in these camps in France. What a waste of magnificent material. Six thousand of these men had voluntarily joined the International Brigade because of their hatred of Fascism. If we should have to go to war and fight against Fascism, why should we neglect this reserve of extraordinarily valuable material? We are told that these men in French camps, because of the harsh way in which they were treated when they came over, are not willing to enlist in the French Army. They are being wasted. There are among them surgeons with remarkable experiences of war casualties, and yet all that valuable material is rotting in these French camps.

It is rather hard on the Noble Lord who is to reply to the debate to-day. So far I have dwelt only on the two aspects of the refugee question that least concern him personally. We do not hold him responsible for the treatment of Czechoslovak refugees or Spanish refugees because his particular charge is that of the International Committee, which met in London the other day and which is to meet by deputy in Washington. We were very glad to hear the Prime Minister announce in this House the other day that the Government are contemplating departing from their original attitude that there could be no Government money devoted to refugees, and that they are willing, if other States also agree, to take part in raising the international finances by which alone the problem of the refugees can be settled on a large scale and in a satisfactory manner. We shall watch with interest the course of these negotiations. When the Noble Lord and his colleagues really approach this problem, I hope that they will remember that there are those two particular groups of refugees, perhaps those with the finest qualities of the whole lot, who also have a claim on international funds, but who in the meantime are the responsibility of those countries which put them into their present flight—we ourselves and our ally France.

Colonel Wedgwood

The most unfortunate thing in the speech of the Prime Minister to-day was his evident reluctance to take economic sanctions against Japan. I would like to put that matter in its true light. He said that we cannot denounce our Treaty with Japan under 12 months' notice. He knows, and the House should know, that this Government at Geneva last November resolved that any country could take action against Japan economically under Article 16, either individually or collectively. So that we are in a position to bring exactly those economic sanctions against Japan. During his speech I had a slight passage of arms with him over the question of the four Chinese accused in Tientsin. He thought that it was a judicial matter and I thought that it was a matter of the honour of this country. If we refused originally, as we did, to hand over those four Chinese, to Japanese justice, it would be infamous to hand them over now because and after Tientsin has been blockaded and our nationals have been scandalously treated. It might have been all right at first, but to do it in order to save ourselves at their expense would, I think, leave a black mark on history which it would be very difficult to wipe out.

This question of honour comes up again when we deal with the Czech refugees. The calls of humanity are equally applicable, I suppose, to all refugees, and indeed to all the other sufferers from the present world war which is going on today, but so far as the Czechs are concerned this Government have a definite responsibility for their condition. I am not going into the general question but intend to give three examples of what is happening to these Czech refugees at the present time. I have heard terrible accounts about 2,000 refugees who fled over the frontier and are still in Poland— swimming over the Oder or climbing over the mountains. I have accounts of what is happening to the refugees in Kakowitz. The position is lightened to some extent by the magnificent conduct of our officials. If it had not been for Claire Hollingworth, of the Friends' organisation, and our Vice-consuls at Kakowitz and Cracow, the conditions would have been far worse. There, at least, we can say that we have realised something of our real responsibilities and are carrying out the decent traditions of the past. There are about 2,000 of these refugees still there. They are being kept alive by contributions from the local Socialists and the local Jews. They are all waiting for permission to come to England. They are under the constant threat of being turned by the Polish Government back under the heel of the Gestapo. Obviously, something must be done for these people without waiting for the next two or three months before the House meets again, otherwise they will starve to death.

There is the case of those who fled in a boat which was burned in the Meditterranean. Desperate people got hold of a ship where they were robbed and housed like cattle. The ship was burnt and they were taken off by the Italians and dumped in Rhodes. There are about 900 men, women and children. There is a very small Jewish population in Rhodes but they cannot keep them alive and the Italian Government is doing nothing for them. These people are actually starving to-day. The accounts that I have had from Rhodes are that people are selling their clothes off their backs in order to buy a little rice. Their future is indeed black. These are all Czech Jew refugees. We cannot allow these people to die of hunger and starvation in Rhodes, when we could let them into Palestine or Cyprus into a concentration camp. They have been there over a month, and it is time that the conscience of Great Britain got to work and we did our duty in saving these people.

The worst case is that of the ship now rotting at Beyrout. There are 650 people on board that ship. I asked a question about it the other day, because it was said that plague had broken out. I was told that it was not plague but that the ship had been deratised, whatever that means, and the people taken ashore. I am told that the rats, over 1,000 of them, were lying on the decks, rotting. The rats had been killed but their carcases were there and still capable of spreading plague. These people left a port on the Danube early in April, and it is now July. Their ship is not an ordinary cargo ship but a derelict, which was fitted out, without any santitary accommodation whatever, without any fresh water for washing, the sort of place in which no civilised Government would ever put prisoners. This ship has been carrying these miserable wretches about for three months.

All they want is to be allowed to go to Palestine. Are we to be held guilty of the murder by disease and slow starvation of these 650 people, because the British Government, responsible for their condition, will not permit them to go to the only place where there is anybody who will look after them and keep them alive?

Some hon. Members may recollect the account from the memoirs of Baron de Marbot, where he tells of French prisoners of war who were starved to death on the hulks lying outside Genoa, when Genoa was beseiged by France. He tells how their howls were heard by day and night, how they fought for the few loaves of bread thrown to them, how the stronger killed the weaker and how, finally, when Genoa was taken, the French took off a few living skeletons who were left alive out of 2,000 prisoners of war. It is one of the most horrible passages of history. To-day we are enacting the same thing in connection with people who are not prisoners of war but whose plight has been brought about by our action, and we are not even allowing these wretches to escape from their prison house to the only land where they could get the care, attention and doctoring they so badly need.

I plead with the Noble Lord. I asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies to be here to-day, but he has not come. I beg the Noble Lord to deal with this problem, whether it be by allowing these poor people into Palestine or allowing them into Cyprus. Do not let us leave them forever to the French, or to the alternative of starvation.

2.42 p.m.

The Paymaster-General (Earl Winter-ton)

I have not been left much time in which to reply—I make no complaint— on the important refugee questions that have been raised, and I must be as brief as I can because I understand it is desired to deal with another subject. The question of refugees is very vast and complicated, and it is somewhat difficult to deal with it in tabloid form. May I preface my observations by making this statement, which I believe to be wholly accurate? Those who are seeking to aid refugees from various countries in Europe, whether it be myself or the Government, who have a particular responsibility in this matter, or whether it be the refugee organisations outside, have to deal with two entirely different sets of critics. One set of critics hold most sincerely the view which has been expressed in the last two speeches— may I in passing pay a tribute to the hon. Lady and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, little as I agree with them? —that not nearly enough is being done, that the British Government have shown a lack of sympathy and that we ought to bring out these refugees in millions. The other set of critics, though less vocal, are people not confined to any one particular Party—I am not speaking merely of anti-Semitists or Fascists—who say that in view of the great responsibilities we have towards our own people His Majesty's Government are doing as much as they ought to do to rescue people from foreign countries. Therefore, it is the duty of those who have responsibility, as I have as Chairman of the Committee and as in some measure handling refugee questions for the Government, to hold an even balance between the two extremes and to carry on this humanitarian work with the greatest amount of support possible from the general body of the public.

Before dealing with the work of the Committee, I will reply briefly to specific questions that have been raised. The hon. Lady asked me about the Spanish refugees. I can only repeat that the Government have made a substantial contribution towards the relief of suffering which has followed the Spanish civil war. The grants which the Government have made total over £100,000. We have given assistance in other ways and I cannot agree that we have not discharged our responsibilities most fully in that regard. Then there is the question of the assistance which has been given to the Czechs. I think I can best deal with that matter by referring to the statement which I made in this House on the 6th April last. I said: It is the intention of the Government that the unexpended balance of £3,250,000 should not be regarded as withdrawn but that by one means or another it should continue to be available for the purpose for which it was originally intended, namely, to provide cost of transport and landing money for Czecho-Slovakian refugees when they go to their final place of settlement overseas. —"[Official Report, 6th April, 1939; col. 30S6, Vol. 345.] The House gave authority to the Government to guarantee a loan of £8,000,000 to the Czecho-Slovakian Government. The Czech State has now disappeared, and, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, this sum cannot be regarded as available for refugees. I know that I shall not be able to persuade the hon. Lady or the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) that the course which the Government have taken is the right one. I can only repeat what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said and what the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has said in the course of previous Debates and in reply to questions. There is a distinct difference between the circumstances when the gift was announced to the former Czecho-Slovakian Government and the offer of the loan made in circumstances which do not exist to-day. There is an unexpended balance still of £4,000,000 and that money is being used for the purposes for which it was intended, namely, to get refugees out of Czecho-Slovakia, and I must repeat that His Majesty's Government cannot give any undertaking that they can add to that amount. The right hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) raised a specific question about the case of Poland.

Sir Arthur Salter

There is one question I should like to put on the matter of the unused loan. I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord fully understands the point. Of course we realise that owing to the changed circumstances the loan cannot go on. The question is this. Suppose the Treasury had been asked, as a purely technical matter, whether they would have preferred to have made a loan under the conditions which were contemplated, or alternately to have given a cash loan of £2,000,000 or £3,000,000, would they not have regarded the second alternative as clearly a less obligation, and is there not therefore a moral obligation to regard a sum of that kind as a reasonable addition to the first £4,000,000?

Earl Winterton

I must not be drawn into a further argument on the question. There are at the present time 600,000 refugees in Germany, and I repeat that there is a distinction to be drawn between the two. I hope the hon. Member will not think me discourteous if I say that I cannot accept the thesis he has just put forward. In regard to the refugees in Poland, I do not think the situation is quite as bad as the right hon. and gallant Member suggests. According to my information 2,000 refugees of Czecho-Slovak origin have been removed from Poland and are now in this country. There remain the 2,000 to which the right hon. and gallant Member referred, but I do not accept his suggestion that their condition is as bad as he thinks, and I can assure him that the question of the future of these refugees is being actively considered by His Majesty's Government at the present time, that is to say, they are endeavouring to see what steps can be taken to find a place for them. I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the attitude of the Polish Government in this matter which has been most helpful.

Colonel Wedgwood

Has the noble Lord any reports from British vice-consuls?

Earl Winterton

Yes, we have constant reports from them, and the Foreign Office is hopeful that it may be possible to find some solution of the problem of the disposal of this 2,000.

The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton put a question to me in regard to the work of the Evian Committee, otherwise known as the London Inter-Governmental Committee. I hope I shall be able to show hon. Members who take an interest in these matters that very considerable progress has been made in the last few months. The main objects of the creation of this committee were to procure the co-operation of the German authorities in the orderly migration of Jewish and non-Aryan people, and to find places of temporary refuge and permanent settlement for these refugees. Its only concern is to find a practical solution of this problem. It is an organisation which is carried on with a minimum of expenditure. It has a small official staff with a distinguished ex-Indian administrator, Sir Herbert Emerson, at its head. The figures have not been given before, but not fewer that 150,000 people have left Germany since the Evian Committee was founded a year ago. Many countries for understandable but regrettable reasons do not publish their intake of refugees, but I will give one or two figures. The United States takes annually under its quota 27,000 German refugees; the actual intake has been a great deal larger because a number of temporary tourists have been allowed to remain on, and it is probably in the neighbourhood of 40,000. We ourselves have 40,000 in this country at present, which is a complete answer to those who say that the British Government are doing nothing for German refugees.

Colonel Wedgwood

But of that 40,000 at least 10,000 go on to America.

Earl Winterton

The Colonial Empire, excluding Palestine and Transjordan, has absorbed about 1,700 persons in the six months ending the 31st March and probably the number will be more in the neighbourhood of 2,000 for the year. Australia is taking 5,000 a year for three years, and Brazil has taken 11,000 and will possibly take 8,000 more. It is not known exactly what proportion of the Palestine quota in recent years has consisted of refugees, but the number must be large.

The great majority of these persons are now in temporary refuge or in permanent settlement, and only a comparatively small proportion are floating about the world at present trying to find some place to go to. The absorption has been mainly, but not entirely, by infiltration. Whether this continues on the same scale or not, it will be materially reinforced by schemes of larger-scale settlement. The British Guiana settlement scheme will commence this Autumn. San Domingo appears to offer wide opportunities. The Report of the Philippines has not yet reached this country, but is said to be favourable. There is some scope for settlement in Northern Rhodesia, and other opportunities of settlement are being looked into. It is a mistake to imagine that any one country, Palestine or anywhere else, can possibly absorb all potential refugees. On the contrary, cumulative effort alone can succeed. It is an enormous task and it means the co-operation of many countries, not forgetting the country of origin.

The hon. Lady referred in favourable terms—I was pleased to have that tribute from her—to the invitation which was announced by the Prime Minister, and which I announced to my colleagues of the Evian Committee, to co-operate by direct assistance in a plan to stimulate private subscriptions to an International fund to finance the migration of refugees overseas. I hope there will be a favourable reception to that invitation, but I must again emphasise that the Government could not contemplate, nor would British public opinion tolerate, unilateral action which suggested that the Government had some special and sole responsibility for refugees. In addition to that, there is this important factor, that a far greater responsibility rests upon the expelling Governments than on any of the Governments of reception, and it is for that reason that the Evian Committee has pursued undeviatingly the first of its main objects of trying to induce Germany to agree to an orderly migration of refugees from that country, instead of a disorderly exodus, with all its concomitants of attempts to jump the Frontier and illegal smuggling into Palestine and elsewhere.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that considerable progress has been made in that regard. I need not recapitulate the offer which the German authorities made, but I think it is material to state that steps have already been taken to regulate and in some respects to ameliorate the conditions of Jews there. Sir Herbert Emerson has had contact with the German authorities on many occasions and I understand that, with the formation of a distinguished private refugee foundation on a broad international basis outside Germany, the way is now clear for the establishment in Germany of an internal trust, the effect of which would be, according to the German statement of intentions, to relieve some of the financial burdens now falling on private refugee bodies. The nominal value of the Trust would run to many millions sterling. If this plan materialises it is not egoistic for me, as Chairman of the London Inter-governmental Committee, to say that it will be a considerable achievement on the part of the director and the Committee, and I have good reason to believe that it will. The International foundation of a voluntary character to which I have referred will have a very distinguished body of trustees, Jew and Gentile, composed of United States and British citizens. I hope that it will include at least one former American Ambassador to this country, together with several names very well known in this country who have experience in refugee work.

The worst service that anyone can do to the refugee movement is to encourage in any way the illicit entry of refugees into any country, including Palestine. There is not a country represented on my Committee which does not condemn most strongly illegal traffic into Palestine, Holland, Belgium or elsewhere. A great deal of trouble has been caused to the Belgian and Dutch authorities—incidentally both Belgium and Holland have done a great deal for refugees—and the French and Swiss have all suffered from this illicit migration. That must be my answer to the right hon. Gentleman about the refugees from Czecho-Slovakia. We cannot for a moment accept any responsibility whatever for the conditions under which assistance was given to the 700 Czech Jews who attempted to get into Palestine. While no British subjects are concerned in or connive in this traffic, big money is being made in certain countries in Europe, with the connivance of certain authorities, in this cruel traffic, which is in some respects comparable to the white slave traffic. They are being asked to give enormous sums of money in order to be smuggled over the Frontier to Holland and Belgium and into Palestine and elsewhere. I should not be doing justice to the interests of the Evian Committee or representing the views of its officers if I did not say that we condemn in the strongest terms this illegal immigration. The figures that I have given, the hopes that arise from the circumstances that I have described and the conversations that have gone on with the German authorities all show that this problem is soluble over the period of the next two or three years, but only if Members of this House and the public outside in every country will approach the matter in a common sense, judicial spirit and try to find a common view point and a common aim.

Colonel Wedgwood

Are we to understand that nothing is to be done for these Czechs, for whom we are responsible, who have managed to escape to Rhodes and Beyrout, and the Colonial Office do not allow them into Cyprus or Palestine?

Earl Winterton

I cannot accept the view that we have some particular and sole responsibilty. The Government have made it clear throughout that there are special circumstances concerning conditions in Czecho-Slovakia which have made them willing to give special assistance. The right hon. Gentleman, like so many other critics of the Government, assumes that everything that has happened in Europe is due to some original sin of the British Government, just as critics of the French Government say that it is due to original sin on their part. It is due to the original sin of neither. Certain deplorable circumstances have arisen and, in those circumstances, the Government have done the best they can for these unfortunate refugees.