Karl Polanyi, the refugee in need of a visa

At various points in my life, I have come up face to face with the bureaucracy that prevents refugees from coming to Britain and other rich countries. In Cairo, I used to copy edit and check refugee testimonies but a few years ago, I had a more personal experience. 

I had a friend in trouble who needed to flee her country. An official at the British embassy told me there was nothing I could do to help her get to Britain. The official said if my friend was really in trouble, she would probably have to spend the next few years of her life in a refugee camp. Fortunately, through an American friend, I also visited the US embassy. There, a very kind official told me “Tell her to lie on her forms. Make no mention of her political trouble and instead apply as a student or a visitor. Once she is in the US, she should claim asylum”. In other words, it seemed that the only way to navigate the system was to lie.

This week, I was listening to a podcast about Karl Polanyi, the author of The Great Transformation, one of the most profound books I have ever read. In an interview with his daughter, she revealed that had it not been for the intervention of a British Labour politician, Josiah Wedgwood, during WWII, it is unlikely we would have ever gotten The Great Transformation. This is the interview:

KPL: You mentioned the British naturalisation that we received at a crucial time in May of 1940. I believe my family owed this largely to Sir Josiah Wedgwood, and there is correspondence in the archives with Sir Josiah Wedgwood.… I know that because we had a family relationship with the Wedgwoods. In addition Sir Josiah Wedgwood was a Labour Peer and a very decent fellow who did an awful lot for people to help them to get out of Austria, Germany, and elsewhere. In this case he helped my father obtain British naturalisation probably two or three weeks before he would otherwise have been interned. And given my father’s advanced age (I mean advanced in terms of other young people), I don’t really know what would have happened to him, but he certainly would never have had the chance to write his most famous book. It gave him his entrée late in life into [the] academic world…

DS: So the critical thing you said a moment ago was that the naturalisation came through just a few weeks before he would have been interned.

KPL: Really and truly at the most critical moment, about a week after the war started in May 1940.

DS: Well, that was one of the missing links because the correspondence that I found runs more or less up to that point but it wasn’t 100% clear to me that it came through in time, so you’ve answered one of the key questions.

KPL: … Fortunately. There would be no Karl Polanyi that anybody would have heard of if it had not been for that!

(The full text of the interview)

It just makes you think what visas can do, not just for human life, but for intellectual production and creativity. Is the next Karl Polanyi stuck in a refugee camp somewhere in Turkey or Iraq right now? Makes you wish we lived in a more humane world, doesn’t it?



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