The origin of the biggest flow of refugees in Britain's history may surprise you

Evan Bartlett@ev_bartlett
Sunday 06 September 2015 14:30
Belgian refugees at a workhouse in Kensington, London c.1914 (Picture: Getty)

More than 10,000 refugees are expected to be welcomed to Britain, after David Cameron bowed to pressure from the media and the general public this week and reversed his "morally bankrupt" stance on asylum.

With that news has come the predictable worry about the "social fabric of Britain" being eroded and of the threat that public services will struggle to cope with the "influx".

But not only is it worth remembering that 10,000 people is just 0.015625 per cent of Britain's population, we've also welcomed far bigger flows of refugees in the past - from Huguenots in the 17th century to Jews in the Second World War.

Although many refugees have faced similar bigotry to that which exists today, Britain still has a long and celebrated history of welcoming those fleeing war and persecution.

Just over a century ago, at the outbreak of the First World War, the first wave of an estimated 250,000 Belgians arrived on British shores - the biggest flow of refugees in our history - with as many as 16,000 arriving in a single day on 14 October 1914.

As the BBC explained in a guide to the Belgian refugees last year: "Few communities in the UK were unaffected by their arrival, say historians. Most were housed with families across the country and in all four nations."

But as British Future reported last year, the majority of people have never heard of the Belgian refugees. In a YouGov poll last June not one single respondent chose Belgians from a list of seven available when asked the biggest flow of refugees to Britain - with 20 per cent suspecting it to be Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin's regime in the 1970s and 17 per cent thinking it was Jews in the Second World War.

As the war ended and peace returned to their homeland, the vast majority of Belgians chose to return - with almost 90 per cent having left Britain within 12 months of the war ending.

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