840.48 Refugees/3633

The British Embassy to the Department of State


Refugees from Nazi-occupied Territory

Many thousands of refugees continue to crowd into neutral countries in Europe, and the situation is developing with such rapidity and in such proportions that His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom have become impressed with the necessity for consultation and joint effort in dealing with the problem. Certain complicating factors which accompany this development appear to His Majesty’s Government to emphasize this necessity.

The refugee problem cannot be treated as though it were a wholly Jewish problem which could be handled by Jewish agencies or by machinery only adapted for assisting Jews. There are so many non-Jewish refugees and there is so much acute suffering among non-Jews in Allied countries that Allied criticism would probably result if any marked preference were shown in removing Jews from territories in enemy occupation. There is also the distinct danger of stimulating anti-semitism in areas where an excessive number of foreign Jews are introduced.
There is at present always a danger of raising false hopes among refugees by suggesting or announcing alternative possible destinations in excess of shipping probabilities.
There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.
His Majesty’s Government, while aware of these complicating factors, find it impossible to make a merely negative response to a growing international problem, disturbing the public conscience and involving the rescue of people threatened by Germany’s extermination policy. It is physically impossible on the score of shipping limitations [Page 135] alone for the United Kingdom or even for the United Nations as a whole, to contemplate meeting in full what may prove to be an unlimited demand. A great part of the refugees who leave German-occupied Europe will have to continue to be received in neutral countries whom His Majesty’s Government wish to encourage not only by material help but by assurances (which the Swiss Government has in fact requested) that the refugee problem will be brought within the United Nations rehabilitation plans at the end of the war.
The absorptive capacity of accessible neutral countries in Europe seems however to be approaching its limit, and the Allied Governments cannot very well go on exhorting those countries not to turn any refugees back without offering co-operation in accommodating a proportion of them.
A detailed statement of the contributions by the United Kingdom and the Colonial Empire to the refugee problem will be found in the attached statement.2 It should be noticed that Great Britain, in spite of the prevailing stringency of food and housing under war conditions, is accommodating, besides Allied Forces or Merchant Seamen, nearly 100,000 refugees, while the Colonies are straining their resources of food, labour and accommodation in housing many scores of thousands of refugees in addition to civilian internees, British and Allied evacuees, and prisoners of war; East Africa alone has taken in more than two and a half times its white population. Despite the substantial contribution already made by Palestine and the considerable difficulties of food, labour and accommodation which exists there, His Majesty’s Government have within the last few weeks offered to take 4,500 children accompanied by 300 women from Bulgaria. Owing to the acute security problem in Palestine, the authorities are not prepared, except possibly in individual cases, to accept male adults from enemy or enemy-occupied countries; but His Majesty’s Government will continue to do everything possible to facilitate the admission of children within the limits imposed by the 1939 White Paper. (A copy of the White Paper in question is enclosed for the convenience of the Department of State.)3
His Majesty’s Government are aware of the generous reception by the United States accorded to many thousands of refugees and of the action taken by the United States in finding other outlets, in particular San Domingo, after the establishment of the Evian Committee3a on the initiative of the President. They also appreciate that for security reasons the United States Government now scrutinizes [Page 136] new entrants into the country with the greatest care and that, in addition, the question of accommodation and food is influenced by the prevailing war conditions. His Majesty’s Government understand, however, that the United States Government have offered to take large numbers of refugee children from France, and they enquire therefore whether, taking all factors into consideration, food potentialities, housing accommodation and the absorptive capacity of the United States on the one hand and the margin for free action within the immigration quotas on the other, the United States Government would still find it possible to offer, as part of an international effort, homes for a proportion of the adult refugees now reaching neutral countries.
Considering the matter in further detail, His Majesty’s Government would mention that reception in the United States has at least one vital advantage over reception in the United Kingdom, namely that all additional persons received in the British Isles not only require shipping to transport them thither but start new shipping demands for their maintenance as long as they are there. In spite of this, however, and notwithstanding the other obvious difficulties referred to at the beginning of paragraph 3 above, His Majesty’s Government are prepared to consider the possibility of further effort, as part of a general endeavour by the United Nations to cope with this problem. In particular, over and above the large part already played by the Colonial Territories, His Majesty’s Government would be prepared to examine the question whether there is any scope,—even though it is now bound to be very limited—, for further admissions into the Colonies. It is unlikely for reasons already indicated that any but a very limited number of refugees could in future be accepted into the United Kingdom and, if it proved practical to accept here any further refugees as part of a comprehensive inter-Allied solution, His Majesty’s Government would have to reserve to themselves the right to accommodate them in the Isle of Man, possibly under conditions of detention, and could give no guarantee at this stage as to their ultimate disposal.
If an understanding could be reached between His Majesty’s Government and the United States Government in regard to such a cooperative offer, the way would be open for approaching the other Governments of the United Nations, for example the Latin American countries (except Mexico which has made a very considerable offer of assistance in regard to Poles from Persia), the British Dominions or even neutrals to ascertain what they would be prepared to contribute towards the solution of the most immediate problem. This would have to be done with the minimum of publicity over details, and for this reason His Majesty’s Government would be inclined [Page 137] to deprecate any kind of formal international meeting; but some kind of private conference of Allied representatives would appear to be the most expeditious and practical procedure, and if its main result was to elicit full statements of what the various Governments were doing and any difficulties in the way of their doing more this in itself would be of great value.
His Majesty’s Government are gratified to learn of the despatch by the State Department of officials to North Africa, and would be interested to learn the views of these officials as to the capacity of North Africa to accommodate a substantial proportion of the refugees from Spain and Portugal and the possibilities of a civil administration taking responsibility for this problem, in which administration His Majesty’s Government would be ready to take their share. His Majesty’s Government are also aware that cooperation between the United States and British Governments and the Embassies of the two countries in Madrid have already produced useful local results. There is, however, still danger of unfavourable action by or an appeal from the Spanish Government in connexion with the situation in Spain, and His Majesty’s Government therefore feel that consideration of the general problem of refugees is too pressing to be deferred any longer and in particular they consider that it is now necessary to get to grips with the question of alternative destinations. This is their reason for the present approach to the United States Government, on the basis that the time for unilateral and piecemeal action is passed and that combined practical measures must be taken.
His Majesty’s Government will accordingly be grateful for the observations of the United States Government on the above considerations and, in particular—
Whether the United States Government agree that combined action by the United Nations is now called for.
Whether the United States Government would be prepared as part of this action to admit to the United States further adult refugees from Nazi-controlled areas and, if so, in what numbers.
Whether the United States Government would be able to arrange for the further reception of refugees in San Domingo and, if so, in what numbers.
What assistance in the matter of shipping would be available from the United States.
Whether the United States Government agree as to the expediency of a private and informal United Nations conference and, if so, any views they may hold as to its composition, etc.
Whether the United States Government consider that assurances could now be given to neutral countries that the refugee problem will be brought within the scope of rehabilitation plans of the United Nations at the end of the war.
  1. Not printed.
  2. British Cmd. 6019: Palestine, Statement of Policy, Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament, May, 1939.
  3. For correspondence on the meeting at Evian, France, see Foreign Relations, 1938, vol. i, pp. 740 ff.