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The Joint Working Group for the Resettlement of Refugees

The groundwork for the reception of Chilean refugees following the military coup was done by the Chile Committee for Human Rights, the Chile Solidarity Campaign and the Joint Working Group for the Resettlement of Refugees from Chile (JWG) in the UK and Academics for Chile (AFC). A huge amount of lobbying was done on the basis of the information collected mostly from the Comité Pro Paz (later the Vicaría de la Solidaridad) set up by the churches in Santiago.

The JWG carried out the reception and the resettlement programme of Chilean exiles in the UK. It was run by Gordon Hutchison and Ann Browne on very little money, though they did receive a small sum from the Home Office. It included members from several organisations such as the British Council for Aid to Refugees (BCAR), Ockenden Venture, WUS, Christian Aid, and the Standing Conference on Refugees. The JWG was able to be effective only because of the large solidarity network of 60 local Chile Committees set up through the Chilean Solidarity Campaign and the Chilean Committee for Human Rights. These committees bombarded the Home Office with letters and also often arranged the reception of the refugees in their area. Almost all of the approximately 3,000 refugees who eventually came to the UK did it through the JWG.

There was a lack of official support. In fact, campaigning and lobbying were sorely needed because under the orders of the British Ambassador Reginald Secondé, the gates of the British Embassy in Santiago were shut and guarded, so that no refugees could seek asylum there. Also, the Tories said openly that they did not want communists to come to the UK and the Home Office was antagonistic all along. Visas were delayed and Alex Lyon, Junior Minister at the Home Office at the time, let slip that applications were being checked by the CIA before any answer was given.

There was an amazingly high level of generosity and commitment among the people of these local committees who ranged from quite militantly left wing trade unionists, members of the British Communist Party and members of many different churches.

The Life of Chilean Exiles in the UK

Many of the people who arrived had been ‘adopted’ as political prisoners by individuals or groups working with the Chile Committee for Human Rights. They had been able to get out the country due to Decreto Ley 504, through which their prison sentence could be commuted into one of exile. Most people who received these refugees had never been to Chile or anywhere in Latin America. The contacts often had a lasting impact; there are some cases where families who received Chileans are still in touch with them.

The Chileans were predominantly middle class people who knew how to find their way to embassies in Santiago and had contacts who helped them to leave. Later on, however, more workers and peasants arrived from neighbouring countries to which they had fled, especially from Peru and Argentina.

The refugees did not have an easy time: because they were traumatised by the experience of the military coup and also often very homesick, because the sectarianism among the different political parties in Chile persisted when they arrived in the UK (which meant that they were often unnecessarily isolated) and because many of them were burdened by such a sense of guilt at having left that they refused even to learn English, as that might have indicated that they were here to stay. However, most of them did, in the end, take advantage of opportunities offered to them and many became involved in local solidarity campaigns or human rights groups.

When things improved in Chile and resettlement grants were given (channelled through WUS Chile), many Chileans who went back had a tough time there as well. On the one hand, because of their children’s unwillingness to be there and the difficulty they found in settling down. On the other, because of the considerable resentment felt on the part of the Chileans who had remained in the country and who regarded those in exile as having had privileged access to educational opportunities as well as having avoided the fear and horror that they had suffered for years under the dictatorship.

Based on Wendy Tyndale's testimony

Joint Working Group - Chile Committee for Human Rights

Read the complete version here