REMEMBERING NORWICH’S REFUGEE HISTORY

by James Anthony

Earlier in the summer of 2016, Norfolk County Council voted to continue their commitment to resettling fifty Syrian refugees around the county. The motion passed overwhelmingly, but the UKIP group on the council refused to support it, their leader claiming that “we have to look after our own first”. It’s disappointing that this sort of attitude prevails in Norwich. Those opposing the resettlement scheme may claim that refugees are hurting British culture — but to me, (especially in Norwich) it is in our culture to help those most in need.

Most people in Norwich may not realise just how much we have done as a city historically for refugees — and how much we owe them for our continued success.

As early as 1565 Norwich authorities had the same progressive outlook as the majority of Norfolk councils and invited refugees to settle in the city. Rather than the Middle East, these refugees came from the Spanish Netherlands, but they were still fleeing persecution much like today. Neither their religious beliefs nor their ideals of political independence were tolerated by their Spanish rulers, and many accepted Norwich’s invitation of safe refuge. What made our city’s offer so incredible was that, never before had there been instances of asylum seekers, nor had there been too many primarily political refugees, on a scale like this in Northern Europe. It’s brilliant that as a city we unquestioningly accepted so many refugees — and it’s even more impressive just how well they fitted into Norwich life.

never before had there been instances of asylum seekers, nor had there been too many primarily political refugees, on a scale like this in Northern Europe

In terms of numbers, we were incredibly accommodating as a city. At one stage, over a third of the population were immigrants. They mostly settled around the river and to the north bank, but were no means split off from the community in any sort of ghetto as those of different ideals or race may have been at that time in history. If anything, they helped regenerate areas of the city which had become neglected. We know that the ‘Strangers’ as they became known, were living alongside Norwich locals in an orderly, neighbourly fashion.

(via EDP)

(via EDP)

As a city, we have a lot to thank these refugees for. The Flemish refugee group were largely responsible for passing on the weaving skills that made Norwich textiles so popular and made the city very wealthy for the next two hundred years. The importance they placed on open spaces and gardens is said to have influenced present-day Norwich. Most prominently they are said to have introduced canaries — the symbol of Norwich City Football Club — to the area, an important icon for the city, especially for football fans like myself. The story of these Norwich asylum seekers is one where the city benefited enormously from the different culture and increased number of residents. Why is it that so many people think this is an impossible scenario today?

they are said to have introduced canaries — the symbol of Norwich City Football Club — to the area

Norwich City Council is playing a big part in helping the pro-refugee cause. A motion brought to the council last month secured unanimous cross-party backing to call on the government to honour, without delay, its commitment to unaccompanied refugee children and to ensure that local councils are helped with funding in order to provide the necessary services and support to these vulnerable youngsters. It’s a shame that the central government who ultimately have a say over the final policies are unable to make a solid decision and aid those in the world who need our help most.

The historical invitation was a leap in the dark that ended up benefiting the city enormously. It’s not such a bad idea to take a look at bringing more refugees into Norwich who desperately need our help. Those who think ‘turning the clock back’ to a time of isolationist immigration policies and turning our back on refugees is a sensible idea should maybe draw some inspiration from the Norwich of 1565. Perhaps it’s time we did turn the clocks back on our immigration policy — a few hundred years should do the job.

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