Today I met with a child refugee. John was just 7 years old when his parents entrusted the lives of him and his 12 year old brother to a ship they knew might never reach it’s destination. It did not. He was one of a handful of survivors that did not include his brother. John is not from Syria though, he’s from Southall in London and he’s now in his mid-eighties. He was one of more than 2,000 British children evacuated overseas during World War Two under the CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) scheme. The idea behind the scheme was to send children who could not afford private passage to foster homes in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand where they would be safe from bombing and the threat of invasion. Their parents were not able to go with them.
I spent several months earlier this year researching a ship involved in the transport of these CORB children. The City of Benares was sunk by a U-boat in the Atlantic more than 600 miles from land 75 years ago today. There were 90 evacuee children on board, John was one of only 13 of them to survive.
I have seen comments lately calling into question how parents of children amongst the Syrian refugees could do something so seemingly reprehensible as putting their children on a boat they know may be unsound. I would imagine for exactly the same reason parents flocked to the CORB scheme, fear and desperation, having had to weigh terrible options and work out what you think will give your child the best chance of survival and a better life. British parents 75 years ago were making a similar decision.
The CORB children weren’t called refugees, they were known as Seavacs but though the terminology is different the facts are the same, children fleeing overseas in dangerous conditions to escape a war zone. Only then the nations they were fleeing to had opened their arms and literally their homes to them. More than one person has commented to me over the last couple of weeks how particularly poignant the City of Benares tragedy seems in light of current events. Perhaps 75 years on it may serve to remind us that refugees are not an invading force, they are people like us, and that this is not just something that happens to other people in far-flung parts of the world.
For anyone interested in reading more about the City of Benares the Merseyside Maritime Museum has a brand new online exhibition.