Daily Mail, 24 November 1998
Why I, whose family fled death and terror, resent the use of this word to describe the illegal immigrants flocking into Britain today.
LIKE any hardworking taxpayer in this country, I am angered and appalled by the stream of ‘refugees’ from Eastern Europe now washing up on our shores. Some 18,000 illegal immigrants were resident in Britain last year, which is not counting those who manage to ‘vanish’ into the crowds. This year the number of asylum-seekers has risen even higher; they cost the country more than £2 billion. It is thought that some 60,000 are missing in the system.
The cynicism and greed of those who come here expecting to be fed, housed and catered for, courtesy of the hard-pressed British – despite the absence of any historical obligation to do so – is quite sickening. Of course, some are genuine cases escaping persecution, but it is clear the vast majority come to Britain knowing they can live on state handouts.
For me, there is a personal dimension to this story. The whole business is acutely painful because it threatens to bring the word ‘refugee’ into disrepute – and I know only too well what it means to be a refugee. To class these opportunistic migrants as refugees is an insult to those genuine victims of tyranny and persecution who have sought asylum in the West, gratefully received it and, in return, enriched the cultural and social fabric of their adoptive country.
Today the Queen’s Speech will unveil a tough crackdown on these bogus refugees, with reform of immigration rules promised for the new session of Parliament. But how many of these people have inveigled their way in already? As always, it has taken a crisis to bring about a much-needed change.
I was a small child in 1956 when my family joined the exodus of Hungarians – some 200,000-strong – escaping to freedom in the wake of the brutally suppressed uprising. So for me, the word ‘refugee’ has specific connotations: barbed wire, watchtowers and minefields and risking imprisonment and even death.
Few of my compatriots actually wanted to leave their homeland. Like my parents, they would have preferred to remain and flourish in their own country, given some basic human rights. But when there are Soviet tanks and dead bodies on your streets, you have little choice.
My family fled to America – the country which threw open its doors most widely to the ‘huddled masses’. My father, a writer and journalist, struggled hard to provide for his family in an unfamiliar environment. That he was able to do so, without giving up his writing career or compromising his ideals, is a testimony to the strength of his convictions.
My mother had been a well-known singer in Hungary; she gave this up to concentrate on bringing up her children in our adopted land.
Several thousand Hungarians came to Britain, too. Throughout my life I have made many Hungarian émigré friends. Some became businessmen, others were broadcasters, actors, artists, publishers. They didn’t all find it easy to assimilate; some who came to Britain were more ‘Anglicise-able’ than others. And there have been a few who, since the fall of communism in 1989, have chosen to return to their roots in Hungary. But in the 42 years since that revolution, I’ve not met a single one who expected, or wanted, to be supported by the state. Because being a real refugee, as opposed to one of the bogus variety gate-crashing Britain, is not just a matter of acquiring a particular legal status. It is a state of mind.
People who have risked all to flee from political or racial oppression tend to be ambitious, industrious and proud, determined to make it despite the odds – maybe even because of them. In leaving behind their homeland, they have lost everything . . . except their dreams.
That is why they are so often phenomenally successful in their host countries. Jews escaping European anti-Semitism created Hollywood. The diligent and enterprising ‘boat people’ of Vietnam have injected new vitality into the business communities of every country in which they have settled. Ugandan Asians expelled a quarter-century ago by the murderous Idi Amin have done the same for Britain. The free countries of the world are full of examples of onetime penniless refugees who have not only done well, but – let’s face it – outstripped most of the natives.
They were able to overcome cultural barriers, language difficulties and the inevitable prejudices because they knew who they were and what they were about. They had a mission to succeed – not just for themselves and for the sake of their families, but so that they could have the last laugh on their tormentors back in the old country.
It is precisely this burning desire to ‘make it’ which is missing from the hordes arriving from Slovakia, Albania and other corners of Eastern Europe. These newcomers, apparently, believe they already have it made. At our expense, naturally.
Gipsies are a special case, of course, and can’t be lumped together with other would-be immigrants. Even in the darkest days of communist oppression, when a doctor, engineer or skilled worker had little hope of obtaining a passport or exit visa, the Soviet bloc regimes were only too happy to see the back of their gipsies. Regarded as an underclass of work-shy misfits sponging off the state, they were actively encouraged to leave. In fact, trying to dump this social problem on to their Western neighbours was just another cynical tactic of the Cold War.
In this respect, the latter-day governments of Eastern Europe have not changed much. If Britain is daft enough to let their gipsies in, install them in council flats and pay them weekly benefits – so their reasoning goes – why should they stand in the way? None of this should be confused with people genuinely seeking asylum, political or otherwise. Gipsies might be scorned for their lifestyle, but are hardly suffering from systematic persecution.
It is undeniable that a lot of people have it very tough in Eastern Europe, where countries are struggling to create viable economies and political structures after nearly half a century of catastrophic communist rule. This is obvious to me every time I visit Hungary – by no means worst off among the former satellite states of the Soviet Union – and speak to friends and relatives still waiting to see the fruits of the much-vaunted democracy.
No doubt it will be far into the next millennium before these longsuffering people can enjoy in their own lands the many advantages we often take for granted here.
So you can’t exactly blame those who exploit our lax regulations, sail through immigration controls at our airports and seaports and happily settle into life as asylum-seeking residents of Tony Blair’s cool New Britain.
But neither can you dignify them with the term ‘refugees’, for this carries with it notions of fortitude and endeavour – qualities which, quite frankly, too many of them all too blatantly lack.