Refugees in a barbarous country

“Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation, and that you sit as kings in your desires”.
Asylum seekers are not new news. The deeply emotional debates about what to do with refugees who claimed to flee persecution in their homelands but were feared to be seeking economic opportunities in more prosperous countries were rehearsed by none other than William Shakespeare and even then it was by no means considered a new occurence.
The refugees Shakespeare was thinking of were the French and Dutch Calvinists, members of Protestant minorities who were persecuted by contemporary Catholic governments in France and the Southern Low Countries (roughly speaking, Belgium today). These asylum seekers were known in England as “aliens” or “strangers”.
It was Edward VI who had first permitted the settlement of Protestant asylum seekers in 1550 at a time when persecutions were being widely documented across Europe. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, initial feelings of solidarity across Protestant Europe and sympathy had shifted to suspicions that the more recent waves of arrival no longer sought refuge from dictatorial regimes but instead sought better livelihoods. Sound familiar?
Elizabeth declined to ratify Edward’s position formally, leaving newly arrived migrants with ambiguous legal status. These men (for it was then as now mostly men with working prospects who were sent first to establish economic security for families left behind in their homelands) arrived in England with few possessions to face restricted working opportunities and harsh taxation regimes. They were required to settle only in designated towns, worship in their own churches, provide for the poor and sick in their own congregations and restrictions were placed on their ability to meet and mix with the local population, leaving refugees largely ghettoized. During the 1570s and 1580s, progressively harsh social, legal and economic conditions were placed upon the community to prevent them from taking jobs over local workers or displacing local industries.
Reading the remaining accounts of these congregations reveals their struggles to survive in this harsh environment, particularly for any who fell ill or were sending a portion of their meagre funds back to relatives. Surviving letters show the pressure men were under from those back home to provide extra income and support placements for other friends and family, who imagined the situation far more favourable for religious refugees in England than it actually was. These accounts also list punishments for migrants who were trying to establish forbidden social and emotional connections with locals.
Shakespeare made his arguments through the voice of Sir Thomas More in his contribution to the jointly-authored manuscript play of the same name, composed around 1604. At this time, Shakespeare was lodging in London with a French Protestant, Christopher Mountjoy.
By the time Shakespeare was writing, tensions had eased and “strangers” were slowly managing to integrate into local communities and to innovate English industries with their new skills sets and knowledge.
It was by no means plain sailing but Shakespeare looked back on those earlier times with revulsion. The protagonist More asked his audience to place themselves in the shoes of the asylum seekers:
“Whither would you go?”
“Would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that … would not afford you an abode on earth?”
“What would you think to be thus used?”
More compells Londoners to charity for the ‘poor’ and ‘wretched’ strangers.
“This is the strangers’ case, and this your mountainish inhumanity.”
Shakespeare lived to see the triumph of compassion over fear and inhumanity. Can we do as much in twenty-first- century Australia?
Posted by Susan Broomhall

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