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Last Updated: Monday, 7 November 2005, 18:52 GMT
UK refuge for Basque war children
By Simon Evans
Producer, The Basque Children

(Pic: Manuel Moreno - Basque Children of '37 Association)
Children crammed onto the SS Habana (Pic: Manuel Moreno - Basque Children of '37 Association)
In 1937, 4,000 Basque children were brought to Britain to escape the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

Even before they arrived there was controversy about the operation, as many people believed such an act would contravene the UK's stance of non-intervention in the war.

However, after the destruction of Guernica by German bombers, there were increasing fears for the safety of the civilian population in nearby Bilbao.

The government relented, allowing the evacuation, but would not provide any financial support.

On 21 May, 3,800 children, together with teachers, carers and priests, boarded the SS Habana to make the voyage across a rough Bay of Biscay to the UK.

Conditions on the boat were cramped and unpleasant - which exacerbated the children's feelings of distress after leaving their parents for a foreign land, as Bene Gonzalez recalls.

"The children in the night began crying, one starts the others follow on... and I can still remember it to this day how the children cried and called for their families," he said.

"I remember there was one child with blond hair and blue eyes, with tears running down his cheeks, saying 'I want my parents!' So I said to him: 'Be quiet pretty one, soon your parents will come for you'. Many went to sleep crying, all calling for their family."

Nationalist pressure

They were cared for by a massive mobilisation of voluntary effort. It was while helping to look after a group of them at a colony in Oxfordshire that the mother and father of former Conservative MP Michael Portillo first met. Mr Portillo senior was among those who had fled from Spain.

He put terror everywhere, everyone was scared then, you never knew who was behind you - Franco, he was not very good for the Basque people
Isobel Andrews

Once Bilbao fell to the nationalists, right-wing politicians and newspapers began pressing for the return of the children to their parents. But many had since fled Spain, while others had been captured and imprisoned by Franco's forces or were desperately trying to scratch a living under the new regime.

The arguments between politicians, humanitarian bodies and the Spanish Catholic Church became increasingly vitriolic and complex as they argued over the children's care and repatriation.

In the delicate political climate of the late 1930s, as the dark clouds of fascism spread across Europe, the children became pawns in a game of national and international politics.

The committee that had been formed to care for the children were adamant that no child should be returned to Bilbao without a verifiable written request from their parents.

However, as war seemed inevitable a combination of political expediency and dwindling funds meant that many were eventually repatriated without their parents' knowledge.

Michael Portillo (centre) with Basque 'children'
Michael Portillo's family was among those scarred by the civil war
The children arrived back in their war-ravaged homeland to find that Franco was taking revenge on those who had resisted him, as Isobel Andrews remembers.

"He was killing a lot of people, it didn't matter if you hadn't done anything wrong, his men, the men who were with Franco, they were killing a lot of people," she said.

"He put terror everywhere, everyone was scared then, you never knew who was behind you - Franco, he was not very good for the Basque people."

By the time World War II broke out in September 1939, children were still being sent across the Channel and across France but inevitably some never made it and to this day there are still 400 Basque "children" living in the UK.

The story of The Basque Children will be told by Michael Portillo on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on 7 November.

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