Keith Burnett: The past teaches us to show true humanity to migrants

In this photo taken in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan coast, Friday, May 27, 2016 rescuers help migrants to board the Italian Navy ship Vega, after the boat they were aboard sunk.
In this photo taken in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan coast, Friday, May 27, 2016 rescuers help migrants to board the Italian Navy ship Vega, after the boat they were aboard sunk.
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WHEN I first visited Ellis Island in New York, 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.

On my latest visit just last week, 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. 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. They were also stuff and nonsense. Try to imagine what the USA would be without the migration that made it strong.

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? 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.

Anyone who works in higher education has special reason to be aware of this. Our great universities welcomed 2,600 refugee scholars from Nazi Germany.

These scholars called themselves The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. Their first president was the physicist Lord Rutherford, the then-president of the Royal Society. 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.

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”, 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 June 5 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 CB is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield