1951 – 2021: 70 years of refugee protection in the UK - Refugee Council
July 28, 2021

1951 – 2021: 70 years of refugee protection in the UK

Seventy years ago, after the horrors of World War II, the UK signed the Refugee Convention. We gave our commitment to protect people fleeing war and persecution. Since then, it has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

These are some of those lives.

7 refugees from 7 decades

“Giving safety to people fleeing war and persecution was necessary 70 years ago and I suspect it is more necessary now than ever before.” George Szirtes (72) is a successful writer. He arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1956 at eight years old, having fled Hungary following the Soviet response to the Hungarian Uprising.
“The best thing about starting a new life in Britain was that I wasn’t in South Africa – that I didn’t have to be worried when there was a knock at the door. In South Africa the police were constant visitors and there was a constant fear that my parents could disappear at any time. It didn’t feel like that in England. I think it’s really important that Britain continues to protect refugees. It’s what makes us human – the fact that we recognise suffering in other human beings and we do what we can to alleviate it.” Gillian Slovo (69) is a well-known author and playwright who arrived in the UK from South Africa in 1964 with her mother and two sisters. Her parents were both active in the opposition to the apartheid regime.
“I had to leave Uganda because I had no choice. If I’d stayed there any longer I wouldn’t be alive today. The best thing about getting to the UK was that at least we arrived in this country alive. We thought ‘we’ve got a new life’ – people were welcoming and we thought ‘well, we’ve come to the right place’. We had to forget Uganda. My mind became restful after coming to this country. We were happy that we were in this country. It’s important for Britain to continue protecting refugees because it saved my life and they’ll be saving the lives of others across the world.” Mukund Nathwani (72) came to England in 1972 from Uganda, aged 23. He had been a teacher in the city of Mbale but fled, with many others, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin announced the expulsion of the country’s Asian population.
“When I got to the UK, my teachers really shaped me into who I am today. I came to England knowing no more than a few words in English, just ‘apple’, ‘pear’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They were very patient and there was no judgement from them. What I do feel the Refugee Convention has given me is hope – an opportunity to be human, to be safe and to be with my family.” Hong Dam is a digital artist and writer. Born to a Chinese father and Vietnamese mother, she fled with her family when war broke out between Vietnam and China when she was eight years old. Hong boarded an overcrowded fishing boat and travelled with hundreds of others to the relative safety of Hong Kong. From there her family were resettled in the UK in 1980.
“Being able to make people feel safe is one of the greatest achievements that any country can do. Britain helped me with everything that I am today: all the achievements, both as a parent and professionally. As a result I’m able to give back and help others in need." Remzije Duli, (51) came to UK from Kosovo in 1991 when she was 23. She was in the third year of her medical degree, but when sitting one of her exams the Special Forces entered the university and arrested her teachers and professors.
“I started linking up with some other LGBT people and they said ‘You can stay here. It is safe. Nobody can scare you any more.’ That was very important. Celebrating 70 years of the Refugee Convention, especially for someone like me, a refugee in this wonderful country, I don’t take that for granted. I am who I am now because of the British people, they granted me refugee status and gave me another chance to live. To me personally, refugee protection means freedom, another life. That is important. If it wasn’t for refugee protection from the British people I wouldn’t be here.” Aloysius Ssali came to the UK in 2003 to study but when he returned to Uganda in 2005 he was captured and tortured because of his sexuality. He still had six months left on his student visa, so he fled to the UK. The UK didn't formally recognise sexuality as a reason for claiming refugee status until 2010, but in 2010 he became one of the very first people to be recognised with refugee protection in the UK on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The UN Convention has had a huge impact on me. I always carry my official documentation, which has ‘28 July 1951’ printed on it – a date I will never forget. It has given refugees freedom and acknowledges that we have rights: that we need more than safety and shelter and food. I feel immense gratitude and hope somehow to pay that back. It’s a great milestone, to be able to celebrate it and to pause and reflect on what that has meant for hundreds of thousands of refugees from then until now." Dr Saad Maida (37) is a doctor working in the NHS. He arrived in the UK in 2010 to study and was given refugee status in 2014 because he needed protection from the war and violence in Syria.

We are proud founding members of Together With Refugees, a new coalition of national and local organisations, refugees living in Britain, and people from all walks of life who believe in showing compassion to people fleeing war, persecution or violence.

Find out more by following #TogetherWithRefugees and #WhoWeAre.

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