Problem Of The Belgian Refugees
( Originally Published 1918 )
WE are only gradually realizing the fact that a whole nation has been uprooted from its native soil and been driven from its homes by terror and hunger. The bulk of the Belgian refugees has fled to Holland. About half a million are camped in the Province of Zeeland alone. About 200,000 have crossed the Channel. Many more hundreds of thousands are likely to come to England when the thickly populated industrial districts in the south of Belgium will be in the grip of famine. The presence of such huge multitudes will be a severe drain at a time when there are so many calls on British generosity. It will be an even more severe strain on British statesmanship, for the management of numerous Belgian colonies raises many delicate questions of trade competition and labour adjustment and organization.
THE solutions hitherto adopted or proposed under the first impulse of generosity are obviously only temporary makeshifts. Tens of thousands of Belgians have already been herded in public buildings. Those barracks have sup-plied an immediate emergency and have provided a welcome shelter. But those impoverished Socialist republics, where all distinctions of class are abolished, where master and servant, coal-miner and coal-owner, slum-dwellers and delicately nurtured ladies are crowded together, cannot be a final solution.
On the other hand, thousands of British homes have offered to take in individual Belgians. I have on my desk a thousand 'such offers of private hospitality. The kind-hearted people who make those offers forget that in Belgium, as elsewhere, the social unit is the family ; that Belgian families are rather larger than in other countries, and that in exile families cling together even more fondly than in ordinary circumstances. Therefore such individual separatist hospitality which would break up Belgian families cannot be a definite solution.
I would go further. Even where British families would be prepared to take into their homes whole Belgian families, even such large-hearted hospitality would not be a satisfactory solution. We are apt to forget that, although the Belgians and the British live in close geographical proximity, the two people are really very different in habits of life as well as in language and religion. To take only as an illustration one or two trivial details of daily existence : the Belgian is an early riser, taking breakfast in the winter about half-past six or seven o'clock in the morning. He takes his chief meal in the middle of the day, and his diet is very different from that of the British. A glass of beer is as necessary to his happiness as a cup of tea to the Englishman. These things may only refer to the facts of material life, but, after all, it is of such domestic facts that the life of the home is made.
BUT, in real truth, the main problem is not economic. It is moral. The only satisfactory hospitality will be one which will restore to the Belgian refugee the atmosphere of the home. A refugee could do without comforts. He must needs get accustomed to hardships, but he will desire all the more passionately those essential characteristics of all home life, namely, privacy and intimacy, seclusion and independence. He will prefer the most primitive cottage where he is his own master to the most luxurious mansion where he is only an invited guest.
So far as accommodation is concerned, the simplest solution will therefore be to find a sufficient number of unoccupied cottages in every part of England, and to find the necessary financial resources to pay both rent and board to the occupants of such cottages. The next best solution will be to find accommodation in public buildings, and so to distribute the occupants that they may still maintain their personality and privacy, and that they shall not be compelled to realize the ideal of the collectivist community.
To give work to the Belgian refugees will be even more important than to give them food, clothing, or shelter, In a recent interview which King Alb granted to a representive of the Daily Telegraph His Majesty deprecated the pauperizing of his subjects. And certainly it would be a demoralizing and unprofitable kind of hospitality which would keep hundreds of thousands of Belgians for the whole winter or a whole year in compulsory idleness. Belgian pride could not bear thus to live on the charity of the British people.
I quite realize the difficulty of providing work for such large numbers. I quite see the danger of displacing British labour. The danger is all the greater because wages are lower in Belgium than in Britain, and Belgians ,in distress might be only too easily tempted to accept any remuneration. Still, both dangers can easily be met. After all, they are both successfully dealt with in every new country where new labour is constantly coming in.
A minimum wage can more easily be fixed for Belgian labour than for British labour because it can be fixed by authority and without fear of party complications. Nor ought it to be difficult to find labour for Belgian refugees in trades which have been temporarily depleted by recruiting. Only yesterday I received a visit from a distinguished Scottish manufacturer who was anxious to engage skilled Belgian labour. A large proportion of his workmen had left for the Army, and unless he could replace the vacant ranks, he would have to close his mill. He had been informed that among the Belgian refugees there were plenty of highly skilled workers who could for the time being take the place of the British. It is obvious that, in this case, not only would the Belgians not displace British labour, but they would indirectly be the means of keeping British labour employed.
THERE are a number of other occupations which would give profitable employment to Belgian labour. There are the many forms of intensive agriculture where Belgian people have secured an undisputed pre-eminence. The Belgian crofter has been a pioneer in market gardening and in horticulture, in poultry farming and in dairy farming. I have talked to many a landowner and to many an employer of labour. Their unanimous opinion seems to be that it would be quite easy to provide both the necessary land and the necessary capital for small Belgian colonies to settle in depopulated and fertile agricultural districts, such as the Scottish borders. Such colonies might open new fields of agricultural enterprise, and might assist in that revival of agriculture which, after the war, will be one of the main concerns of the British Government.
AFTER the problem of employment for the grown-up Belgian labourer, there remains the problem of the education for the young. Thou-sands of Belgian children will be drafted into the schools of Britain. And here I would specially draw attention to the enormous practical importance of teaching the English language to those Belgian children. The teaching of English has hitherto been sadly neglected in the schools of Belgium. Many years ago I was specially invited by His Majesty King Leopold of Belgium to assist in the organizing of the teaching of English in Belgian schools. But, for commercial, as well as for political, reasons, it was found impossible to dethrone the study of the German language from its position of pre-eminence. This difficulty has now vanished. Now is the opportunity of giving a decisive emphasis to that part of Belgian education. Belgium and Great Britain will be drawn more and more closely together in the peaceful inter-course of commerce. Let this country, then, take advantage of the presence of these thou-sands of Belgian children and ground them in a knowledge of English. It is in the power of the British educational authorities to train the rank and file of the commercial army which in the near future will have to organize British trade in Belgium.
EVEN if the Old Country cannot absorb and utilize such vast multitudes, the British Colonies still remain to welcome the Belgian refugees. Why should not little Belgian settlements be planted in every part of the British Empire ? Canada, South Africa, and Australia are clamouring for farmers and mechanics, and there are no better farmers and mechanics than the Flemish crofters and the Walloon artisans. Surely there never was a finer opportunity given to British statesmanship to turn the very tragedy of war into a means of developing the Empire ! If the Government are equal to the opportunity we shall see in the near future arising beyond the seas thriving Belgian communities which will commemorate to future generations the glorious days when Belgium and Britons fought and suffered together in the cause of European freedom.