Fourteen-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai, who was airlifted to a British hospital for medical care and protection after she was shot in the head by the Taliban, is the latest of many foreign children in need that Britain has welcomed in modern times. Here’s a quick look at some of the children from places ravaged by war or poverty that Britain has taken under its wing.
The Basque Babies
In 1937, during the Spanish civil war, more than 3,800 child refugees were evacuated from northern Spain and taken to safety in Britain aboard the aged steamship ‘Habana.’ It was an ordeal: The children slept where they could on the overcrowded ship, and many of them became violently seasick from the stormy journey.
It was the first time Britain had received a mass influx of refugees, and the UK press wasn’t entirely sympathetic. Initially sent to a makeshift camp in the port city of Southampton, the “Basque babies” were later adopted by the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church in children’s homes known as “colonies” across the U.K.
Most returned to Spain immediately after the war, but about 250 remained in Britain and settled down. This year, the few who were still alive got together in a reunion to mark the evacuation’s 75th anniversary.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Jewish community leaders in Britain put pressure on the government to take in nearly 10,000 children - most of them Jewish - from Nazi Germany and other threatened central European countries as part of the huge Kindertransport rescue program.
Traveling on boats and trains, the children and teenagers escaped from Adolf Hitler’s Germany and were taken care of by foster families or hostels in the UK They had to leave their families behind - some knew they were sent to safety, but others were too young to understand and were told they were just going on a vacation.
The last Kindertransport left two days before war was declared between Britain and Germany. It was only after the war - or years later - that the children learned the fate of their parents, many of whom had not survived the Holocaust.
Perhaps more similar to the case of Malala was Irma Hadzimuratovic, the 5-year-old Bosnian girl who was flown to Britain for treatment in 1993 amid the Bosnian conflict. Irma was seriously injured by a mortar bomb attack in Sarajevo that killed her mother.
Responding to pleas from doctors in besieged Sarajevo and pressure from the British public, the government decided to send the Royal Air Force to fly Irma to a London hospital. She was airlifted to Britain for treatment, and soon after that Western governments launched “Operation Irma” to airlift more war wounded for treatment. The girl underwent a dozen operations, but she died two years later.
Her dramatic evacuation grabbed global attention, and Irma became one of the most memorable symbols of the brutality of that conflict. At the time, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said: “Because you can’t help everybody it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help somebody.”
In 2003, a photo of an Iraqi boy who lost both his arms during the U.S.-led invasion stirred sympathy from around the world. Twelve-year-old Ali Abbas, whose arms were so severely burned that they had to be amputated, also lost 16 members of his family during a missile raid in Baghdad.
Ali was evacuated to a hospital to Kuwait, then flown to Britain for treatment after a national appeal for donations. He was fitted with prosthetic limbs with the help of the Limbless Association, and later stayed on in Britain, going to school and gaining a UK passport. He returned to Iraq to marry this year. Child Refugees From Afghanistan In recent years Britain has received children from Afghanistan and other politically unstable countries who arrive alone seeking asylum.
Roughly one thousand to two thousand Afghan children came to Britain to start a new life each year from 2006 to 2009, although their numbers have significantly fallen since then. The families of the children typically pay a fee for the children to be taken to Britain, where they get picked up by police and looked after by local officials and charities.
Once they reach 18, though, they have to reapply for refugee status and may be repatriated to their countries. A few hundred children also come to the UK every year from countries like Iran, Eritrea, and Albania to escape military conscription and rights abuses, the Refugee Council said.