Sanctuary, asylum and retreat
Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014)
Liverpool Street Station is the location of two memorials to the ‘Kindertransports’, the name given to the evacuation of ten thousand Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), in which Quakers played a major part. Both are by the sculptor Frank Meisler, himself one of the child refugees. Britain seems to have been rather kinder to children fleeing war and persecution then, as only three years earlier in 1936 several thousand Basque children were given shelter and a new start in life during the Spanish Civil War. Several ‘retreat’ communities in Essex – the Salvation Army Colony at Hadleigh, and The Adelphi Centre in Langham – gave the Basque children a ‘place of greater safety’.
A deeply moving book on this subject, Sanctuary & Asylum: A Social and Political History by Linda Rabben, has just been published, raising questions of how we live alongside others in an age of large-scale migration resulting from a new era of poverty, war and persecution. Rather than recount the many shocking stories which led to the development of more codified agreements about rights to asylum or sanctuary, which Rabben’s book provides in detail, some general principles emerge which govern the conditions in which asylum is culturally accepted.
The first is that the concept of sanctuary itself is religious in origin, and remains largely so today. In pre-Christian times, those seeking personal safety from the violence of others, would hurry to a sacred site where the gods were held to be present, and thus secure divine protection. Christianity continued this tradition, with the church taking on the function of inviolable space, where the rule of the law, or vengeance of others, no longer obtained. Thus sanctuary has always acted as a counter-authority to the power of the state, ‘outside or against the law’ in the words of Rabben, and from time to time refugees still find sanctuary in religious buildings, where they are supported by church congregations.
In contrast, refugee status is ascribed from above, by legal processes usually involving recognition of statutory rights granted by individual nation states or international agreements. These rights are often bitterly contested and hard fought, and sadly have become deeply politicised as a result of globalisation, of which everybody wants the benefits – the cheap food, clothes, electronic goods, exotic holidays – but not the trade-offs and social obligations.
There is certainly a geography and landscape of sanctuary. In the era of the Greek city-states, we are told that, ‘Sanctuaries on the frontiers of city-states were well known. Promontories, considered sacred to the god Poseidon, often served as places of asylum, because they were accessible by both land and sea.’ During the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, several villages in the remote mountainous Haute Loire region, most famously Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, sheltered hundreds of Jews for the whole duration of the war successfully, at great risk to the lives of the villagers and their families too, as well as those they sheltered.
The reference to the coastal location of the Greek sanctuaries reminded me of the Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea, bringing a third type of inviolable space – the retreat – into the vocabulary. Established originally by British and German Christians in 1945 at the end of the Second World War in a spirit of reconciliation, it still thrives and is open to people of all religions and none as a quiet place of short-term retreat. It too stands on the edge between land and sea.
In the course of researching the social history of land settlements and experimental communities in Essex over the past hundred years – which often employed the vocabulary of sanctuary and retreat – it has become clear that religious traditions and impulses lay behind the majority of them. It has been the conjunction of religious and political ideals that have resulted in the most successful experiments in promoting social – and more recently, environmental – change. This is still true today. In this respect I am looking forward to reading Duncan Bowie’s forthcoming book, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities, due early next year, which examines the ethical and philosophical debates and initiatives which fore-shadowed 20th century town planning, and in which the overlap between religious and political beliefs was always extensive.
Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014) © Jason Orton