Former councillor joins refugees to mark 70 years on the UN Refugee Convention

Tom Leimdorfer marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention.

Tom Leimdorfer marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. - Credit: British Red Cross

A former North Somerset councillor and headteacher who survived the Holocaust helped mark 70 years since the UK signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Refugees from each of those seven decades came together to re-create the iconic photograph of the original signing of the convention.

Former Congresbury ward councillor Tom Leimdorfer took part in the recreation of the 1951 image, which aims to celebrate Britain’s history of protecting refugees and to urge that it is upheld for the future.

Refugees from the last seven decades re-create the original photo of the signing of the UN Refugee Convention.

Refugees from the last seven decades re-create the original photo of the signing of the UN Refugee Convention to mark its 70th anniversary on July 28, 2021. - Credit: British Red Cross

Signature of the 1951 Refugee Convention in Geneva, Switzerland.

Signature of the 1951 Refugee Convention in Geneva, Switzerland. Seated (l-r): Mr. John Humphrey, Director of the Human Rights Division; Mr. Knud Larsen (Denmark) President of the Conference; Dr. G.V. van Heuven Goedhart, High Commissioner for Refugees. - Credit: British Red Cross

Mr Leimdorfer came to the UK from Hungary in 1956. He and his mother survived the Holocaust in hiding, with help from Hungarians who risked their lives to shelter them.  

He said: “You bring the trauma with you.

“The painful bit was losing the people you left behind and hearing what was happening in Hungary. There was a sense of loss, which you had to balance with starting a new life.

“The overwhelming atmosphere was that people were welcoming to refugees.”

After coming to the UK, Tom worked with the Quakers at Friends House which included conflict resolution training in his native Hungary and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as helping to run a project in Croatia which helped Bosnian refugee families.

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Tom also worked for MENCAP supporting children and adults with learning disabilities. He represented his village ward for 16 years on North Somerset Council.

He continues to volunteer locally to help run the village library and drive disabled and vulnerable people to medical appointments. He is also active in a local ecumenical refugee support group, which recently welcomed Syrian refugees as part of the government’s Refugee Resettlement Scheme.  

Tom Leimdorfer marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. 

Tom Leimdorfer marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. - Credit: British Red Cross

He added: “The opportunity that I was given to complete a school education and go to university and have a satisfying and varied career has left me with a feeling of gratitude and a real imperative to try and pay back and become part of the community that welcomed me and where I eventually settled in Somerset, and to contribute as much as I possibly can.

"Both my volunteer work and working for the community became second nature.”

The recreated photograph, created by coalition campaign Together With Refugees, brings together refugees spanning recent history: from dissident writers escaping communism in the 1950s to Syrian families fleeing war today, alongside Ugandan Asians who fled the tyranny of Idi Amin and people who escaped ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

In the place of the UN document, they signed a huge orange heart, a symbol of support for refugees.

Findings from an ICM poll revealed today show that three in five people (59 per cent) are proud that Britain has protected refugees since it signed the Convention in 1951 (3).

The backgrounds of those taking part in the event tells a story of 70 years of the UK offering safety to people fleeing war and tyranny.

The UN Refugee Convention 1951 formalised the rights of refugees under international law. It means that countries signed up to it have a legal duty to protect those fleeing persecution and serious harm in other countries.

Some 149 countries have signed up to this law, including the UK.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently going through Parliament and was debated in July, threatens to undermine the fundamental principles of the Convention.

It would mean that thousands of vulnerable people who would currently be accepted as refugees will no longer be given safety in the UK due to the method of their arrival. Some could be criminalised and put in prison for up to four years.

The campaign coalition, Together With Refugees, is calling for a more effective, fair and humane approach to the UK’s refugee system that allows people to have a fair and efficient hearing for their claim for protection, including those who endured traumas and struggle to get here; ensures people can live in dignity in communities while they wait to find out if they will be granted protection; enables refugees to rebuild their lives and make valuable contributions to their communities; and where the UK works with other countries to do its part to help people forced to flee their homes.

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