A test we must not fail 

Last week I was in New York City with The University of Sheffield in America. The reunion took place in the University Club on Fifth Avenue, a historic refuge of calm and comfort on the bustling Isle of Manhattan.

Before travelling down to Washington for meetings at the Brookings Institute, I took the chance to visit Ellis Island, the reception centre for millions of immigrants to the United States. It is now the National Immigration Museum and a popular tourist destination.

When I first visited Ellis Island many years ago, I was struck by the pain of separation of loved ones that migration caused. I had even been an immigrant to the USA myself, but by the time of the visit then had returned to family and friends in the UK. I keenly felt the sadness of those who never saw their families again.

This time my reaction was oh-so-different. Now it was the grandeur of the reception buildings that hit me in the eye.

I saw an efficient one-stop-shop for all the issues a migrant faced, including financial, legal and healthcare – everything to look after the need of the new arrivals. I learned that over 40 charities brought clothing and legal advice, as well as doughnuts and coffee, to the people waiting to be processed in the grand arrival hall.

The pictures of the migrants showed families with trunks full of belongings arriving with trepidation but clear dignity. The men wore their suits and hats as if on a Church family outing. They had travelled in humble fashion, in steerage, but safe from the elements in the great ocean-going liners of the day. When they arrived at Ellis Island, they certainly had to prove they would not be a 'charge on the state', but only two per cent were turned back.

On this visit I thought what a paradise this would seem to those trying to cross by a smuggler's inflatable boat across the Mediterranean, fleeced of their possessions and in danger of drowning. The money they might have used in starting a new life too often stolen from them by the evil exploiters we have failed to nab. I remembered those living under canvas in filthy camps, or risking death on the underside of lorries.

And then I thought, why is there no Ellis Island in the English Channel?

Why do we let 'them' die in the sea? Do we just feel justified because we presume the deaths will discourage others?

Some Americans of that time would have believed this, no doubt. Anti-immigrant feeling is nothing new.

In the museum we saw posters for meetings of the groups that opposed immigration. There were banners proclaiming America for Americans – although I'm not sure what the great nations that lived across America before the Europeans came thought of that. There were notices for town commerce meetings which were Anti-Chinese.

Now we are seeing the same in England. The objections raised to migration were, of course, precisely those we hear today spoken in the UK. And I mean precisely the same. They were also stuff and nonsense.

Try to imagine what the USA would be without the migration that made it strong. It was and is 'the power that has made and preserved a nation' as much as the God in whom they trust.

While in the US I visited my fellow physicist and friend, Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips. Bill has a Welsh father and an Italian mother. His grandmother came through Ellis Island. Bill's scholarship ensures the US is at the forefront of science and technology in measuring time – his work has applications which make America great in everything from commerce to navigation.

So how can we overcome the fear that migration seems to cause, despite such a wealth of evidence of its benefits?

I am sure there are many appeals to reason we could make but first let's be clear about what we know we should do.

It is our irrefutable duty as civilised people to welcome and help these distressed brothers and sisters.

Don't try to wheedle out of this. If you do happen to have any religious leaning, just remind yourself that all religions are damning (many literally) of those who fail to show compassion.

So now to the other good reasons. We should welcome the stranger because we shall and do benefit from the talents they bring. Because we need their ambition and drive, the work and resilience which brings a transfusion of determination and thankfulness into more comfortable societies.

How do we know? The real question is, ‘how could we forget?’ After all, this has all happened before in the 1930s.

Anyone who works in higher education has special reason to be aware of this history. Our great universities welcomed and were then lifted by scholars from Nazi Germany and those fleeing Hitler's laws on ethnicity or political views.

The story is told in a book by the reformist economist Lord Beveridge called A Defence of Free Learning. He tells how 2,600 refugee scholars were taken in by Britain in the darkest of days supported by a group of people who just couldn't stand by.

These scholars called themselves The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. Their first President was the then-President of the Royal Society, the Physicist Lord Rutherford. Although committed to other work, he 'exploded with wrath at the treatment of scientific colleagues he knew and valued'. He did all in his power to bring his influence to bear to welcome those who needed help.

Endorsement also came from eminent thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and AE Housman. Appeals for funds were supported by Winston Churchill.

British universities each did their part. By the time Beveridge wrote his book, the refugee scholars they had helped included 64 professors, 32 Fellows of the Royal Society, 17 Fellows of the British Academy and four Nobel Prize winners. One of these was our own Hans Krebs.

I know we cannot convince everyone about the benefits of immigration, but if we don't understand how much they befitted academia we are truly ignorant.

So what should I do? And what will I ask others to do with me?

To my surprise, the work has already begun. As I share what Rutherford called 'outrage', others want to help. Our students and alumni respond as one. Some like Edmund de Waal are the children of refugees. Others such as our former Students' Union President Abdi Suleiman came to this country in later waves of desperate humanity.

But from New York to the streets of Sheffield I have found those willing to assist. And there are modern day leaders in the Royal Society and British Academy who I am certain will feel the same. I shall ask them and other university leaders to support the call for aid.

In the meantime, we will raise funds to welcome scholars here to Sheffield. On 5 June we will walk together – scholars, students, city leaders and refugees – from the beautiful rural edge of our city to this University. We will show solidarity for those who walk not by choice but from need. I hope you will join us. Together we will pledge to do what we should in our own times.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FRSW
Vice-Chancellor
The University of Sheffield

The 2016 Big Walk is returning to raise funds for refugee academics and students here at the University. Starting on Sunday 12 June, two teams will walk 120 miles over six days along the Trans Pennine Trail from the east and west coasts, meeting on the edge of Sheffield on 17 June, along with staff and students, to walk the final stretch of the journey back to the University together.

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