Stop the planes

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Jewish refugees arrested at Croydon, March 1939

On 29 March 1939, Croydon airport was the site of an extraordinary scene, as the Daily Express reported:

NEARLY 400 Jewish refugees streamed into Croydon in a succession of air liners yesterday -- the biggest influx the airport had ever experienced.

They came from Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Cologne, Berlin, Vienna, Switzerland -- all over Europe.

Most of them were allowed to enter the country [...]1

For example, David Herbst was allowed to stay when his wife Leishi, a former Austrian tennis star, showed up and was able to prove that Herbst 'had money in English Banks'.

[...] when some were told they would have to go back to the Continent in the morning they burst into piteous cries.

One man from Cologne dropped to his knees and pleaded, in tears, with the immigration authorities.

Wailing, he fell on his face and broke his nose. Afterwards he threatened to commit suicide.

He said his father had been taken away manacled and then shot and he believed he would be dealt with in the same way if he returned to Germany.2

Herbst's travelling companions were in the same situation. The thirteen of them had chartered a Danish tri-motor for £600 to fly them out of Warsaw (one source says Cracow). Herbst got to go home with his wife; but the other twelve were detained by the police overnight.

"Nobody knows who the people are. They are a mystery crowd," it was stated by an official. "Many had little money and could not give satisfactory reasons why they should be allowed to land in England."2

I assume the official was talking about legal reasons why the refugees should be allowed to land, rather than just being utterly dense; the reasons why they were fleeing were quite clear. Two weeks earlier, after threatening to bomb Prague off the map, German troops had been allowed to march in, occupying the Czech portions of Czechoslovakia which remained after the cession of the Sudetenland the previous year. Germany ended Czechoslovakia, taking Bohemia and Moravia for itself; Hungary took Carpatho-Ukraine and Slovakia became independent. This meant that suddenly Czech Jews (and those, like Herbst, who had fled from Austria after the Anschluss a year earlier) were subject to Nazi racial discrimination.

There were (possibly?) conflicting stories about why there was a flood of refugees right now, though: that from 1 April a new visa system would apply to Czechs entering Britain, or that from that date Czechs would be treated as Germans, or that they would need permission from Germany to leave. But whatever the reason, the last aeroplanes did land on 31 March, carrying, among others, 91 year old Frau Krampflicek, a 'Czech Jewess' whose family lived in Manchester.3 About 150 refugees arrived that day, with 3 being detained. The day before there had been 241, with 20 detained; on the first day 257, 10 detained.4

The problem was that refugees qua refugees had no automatic right of entry to Britain. In keeping with poor law principles, refugees would only be allowed to stay if it could be shown they would not be a burden to the public purse. If they could show they had funds to support themselves, that was enough. In the cases of Herr Herbst and Frau Krampflicek they had family already in Britain. Many of the other refugees had sponsors of one sort or another, who would ultimately be responsible for their welfare. Those who were told to leave had little money left, and no family or sponsors in Britain; they were just desperate people.

Like the people on the flight from Warsaw. Hilde Marchant (late war correspondent in Spain) reported for the Express that they resisted being put back on the aeroplane back to Copenhagen, where they had already been refused entry and would presumably be deported again:

The men refused and cried: "We will be shot."

One asked for the Czech Consul. Another offered money, but they all had to be dragged out of the hall on to the tarmac.

One man was carried into the plane.5

Another man escaped the airport entirely 'across the Purley-way, over the grounds of the swimming pool and through some factories', but was picked up by a police car.2 A third man, by the name of Vorosov, was pulled off the seat he was clinging onto by two policemen when he got a reprieve: 'an official from the Immigration Department came rushing through the door and said, "There is a permit for Vorosov."'2 So he was allowed to stay. The others were taken back on board the trimotor.

The refugees then began to beat the sides of the plane and hammered at the windows, breaking one of them.

The Danish pilot refused to take them. "They are crazy," he said to the police sergeant. Later he told me he was afraid they would commit suicide by throwing themselves out of the door of the plane.2

Instead of flying out they were taken to a police station again, this time in handcuffs, with the intention that they would be put on a boat to Denmark in the morning.

In this particular story, there was a happy ending. As its name implied, the German Jewish Aid Committee dealt only with helping German Jews. Nevertheless it decided 'as a special measure to provide the necessary guarantees' for the eleven Jewish Czech refugees in question.6 They were given three month visas; I don't know what happened to them after that. But this was just luck, a fortunate consequence of the publicity they had received. The Manchester Guardian thought there must be a fairer and more humane way to handle such refugees:

it is surely unworthy of this country that anyone coming to these shores for the first time should receive such treatment. Even if papers are not in order it might be thought that the Government could set up an independent tribunal which could consider claims to enter on grounds of equity and real need, thereby tempering the strict and inelastic rules of the Home Office. Expulsion, if decided on then, could at least be attempted in a manner more delicate.7

This was not done. Nobody could have known exactly what was in store for those who were sent back to Germany or the late Czechoslovakia, but then that's the point. In 1951, after the Second World War had created many more refugees, a United Nations conference drew up a Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Britain was one of the original signatories. It defines who is a legitimate refugee and who is not; absolves refugees from criminal charges for not following immigration procedures; and, crucially, protects refugees from being forcibly expelled to a country where they would be in danger.

Australia was also one of the original signatories to the Convention. In the last decade, as increasing numbers of people flee wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, refugees have become an incredibly toxic issue in Australian politics. Both major parties have done everything they can to dodge meeting our obligations under international law, from effectively declaring that Australian migration law no longer applies to certain areas where refugees arrive, to sending refugees to other countries while their claims are processed (most recently, the so-called Malaysian solution). The point of all this is deterrence, though the tiny numbers of people involved and the fact that the vast majority of them do turn out to be genuine refugees ought to have given someone, somewhere pause. As might the suicides and riots of refugees locked up in detention centres for years on end. Bizarrely, all the refugees that have got Australians so worked up come by boat. Nobody worries about the ones which come by plane, even though about six times as many come that way, or even about the even more numerous non-refugees who overstay their visa. Perhaps the boat people are too brown. One of the stupider political slogans of the 2010 federal election was 'stop the boats'; at least no one in 1939 Britain -- at least to my knowledge -- wanted to 'stop the planes'.

But the High Court of Australia recently put an end to offshore processing; the Government attempted to overturn this by introducing new legislation, but due to its minority position in the lower House needed the support of the Opposition. Even though the Opposition supports offshore processing, for political reasons it refused; and so the bill never came to a vote. As a result, yesterday the Government decided to re-introduce onshore processing after all. Hopefully this will in time lead to a way of treating refugees in a way that is worthy of this country.


Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13

While efforts to deport refugees by air failed at Croydon yesterday, this young refugee, clutching her doll, arrived at the airport from Cologne.5

Image sources: Wikipedia; Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Daily Express, 30 March 1939, p. 1. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] [] []
  3. Ibid., 1 April 1939, p. 11. []
  4. Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1939, p. 13. These numbers conflict slightly with others reported. []
  5. Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13. [] []
  6. Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1939, p. 13. []
  7. Ibid., p. 12. []

9 thoughts on “Stop the planes

  1. Very interesting post. Looking through UK immigration policy documents at Kew from the 1970s, the idea of 'stopping the planes' was brought up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff in regards to Asian refugees from Uganda in 1972-73. Some files that I looked at had the government discussing how to stop planes from India and mainland Europe from landing in the UK with African Asians on board. FCO documents show that UK was refusing these 'queue-jumpers' (what they called Asian UK passport holders who were not in the original quota designated by Robert Carr) entry and were sending them back to India (who also refused to them). As well as shuttling these people back and forth between the two countries, the UK government also tried to put pressure on the airlines to not accept them as passengers on their aircraft. One of the ideas put forward by diplomats at the British High Commission in Delhi was to encourage India to pass legislation that put responsibility for passengers on the aircraft pilot themselves, so it was up the pilot to remove anyone who was likely to fall foul of UK immigration control before departure. However it was unclear how the diplomatic staff thought they could possibly have persuaded the Indian government to take such actions.

  2. Post author

    That's interesting. Did the British also consider stationing customs officials at Indian (etc) airports to pre-screen passengers? The US has been doing this since the 1950s (actually, I assumed it was recent invention) so the precedent was there. Then again, that would probably be unwelcome coming from India's former imperial masters!

    The reason why this post is timely again is that the Australian government has just introduced legislation to excise the whole of Australia from Australia's migration zone for asylum claims. That means that asylum seekers who make it to the Australian mainland will not have their claims processes onshore but will be sent to camps in Nauru, PNG, Malaysia, etc first. The point is to ensure that they would gain no advantage by a longer sea voyage (i.e. instead of landing at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, which are already excised) and so deter them from making this longer and more dangerous journey. But it's also to deter them from applying for asylum at all. Australia is taking another step away from its humanitarian traditions (it was also one of the original signatories of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees); the hopes I expressed in the post have not been fulfilled.

    But to get back to planes vs boats, the new legislation apparently only applies to asylum seekers who arrive by sea. I wonder if this means that at some future time we will see asylum seekers attempt to cross from Indonesia in rickety old planes instead of rickety old boats? Cost and regulations might make this seem unlikely, but desperate people do desperate things.

  3. Evan

    For migrants from India (and other former colonies), to enter the UK they needed an entry clearance (the Commonwealth equivalent to a visa up until the 1980s) and were advised by the UK government to obtain these from the High Commissions in South Asia before travelling to the UK. So the FCO did staff immigration control officials in India as a form of off-shore processing. Reports from the 1970s claimed that the usual wait for an entry clearance for migration purposes was about 18-24 months. We are actually writing a book on this subject at the moment, due out in 2014.

  4. Post author

    That's (the equivalent of) the standard visa system, though, if I understand correctly? The preclearance system I'm talking about would be in addition to that. Inbound travellers would still need to get visas from an embassy/consulate/high commission, but instead of having these checked at Heathrow when their aircraft landed, that would happen at the foreign airport before they even boarded, by British immigration officials (Home Office, presumably) who would have the power to prevent them from boarding if they didn't have a valid visa or leave to enter. So would-be asylum seekers would never be on British soil to cause HMG embarrassment.

    It turns out the UK does do this now (just in some/all EU airports? I've never encountered it). In fact about a decade ago there was a legal challenge over whether prescreening at Prague airport was unfairly preventing Roma refugees from claiming asylum in the UK. Peter Adey discusses this and the US prescreening process in Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 75-7).

  5. Evan

    Yes, you are right. I don't think the UK government placed immigration officials at airports in South Asia, but this is something I will need to check. That is probably why the government thought about making the airlines responsible for all passengers landing in the UK.

    There are a few possible reasons for not putting HO/FCO staff at foreign airports. One is sovereignty. Another is cost - there are numerous files on how much it is costing to process entry clearances in South Asia already. And thirdly, I think one of the assumptions the immigration control system had would be that would-be migrants who did not have permission the UK would be dissuaded from their experiences of trying to get a valid entry clearance (the demoralising queue) and that it would be too expensive for unauthorised migrants to travel to the UK to be rejected.

    Thanks for the ref on pre-boarding immigration controls in the EU - that will come in handy for our research.

    On the point of border controls working off-shore to prevent embarrassment, we do argue that this is still one of the functions of the High Commission in South Asia. We have argued that the discriminatory and invasive procedures used to 'screen' potential migrants from South Asia were primarily performed overseas to maintain distance between British domestic society, where certain rules were to be followed, and the colonialised 'other', and thus the plausibility of denial could be upheld. When criticisms were made of the immigration control system, the government attempted to claim that any abuses happened 'over there' and were the result of overzealous local FCO staff, not the result of any directives from the UK.

  6. The working title is "Race, Gender and the Body in Immigration Control" and is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan.

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