Revd. Colin Hodgetts
Founder, Refugee Action, UK
They arrived in the UK having lost their homes and families; fleeing the atrocities of ethnic cleansing and war in thousands of tiny, overcrowded boats.
The 1975 withdrawal of American troops from Saigon, Vietnam, had triggered a mass exodus of people; an exodus which grew in scale towards the end of the decade with the persecution of ethnic Chinese in the north of the country. Over 150,000 people died at sea, while some were rescued by merchant ships including a British vessel, which saved 350 ‘boat people’ in 1978. Britain eventually took in over 10,000 Vietnamese refugees and established camps at which they would be held for up to three months before being resettled; camps which were, it was commonly acknowledged, failing.
"I refused to accept the offer of army camps as reception centres,” writes Rev. Colin Hodgetts, who was approached by Save The Children to assist with resettlement. “Instead we set up a network of fourteen centres (from Aberdeenshire to Kent) each holding about 80 refugees and a residential school.”
Born in Jersey in 1940, Colin had spent his first four years under German occupation. In his twenties he, like many young people across Europe, committed himself to nonviolent direct action against war, the nuclear arms race, social injustice and capitalism. By now a clergyman, Colin spent a short period as Peace Officer of the Martin Luther King Foundation and was the first Director of Christian Action, which campaigned on homelessness, nonviolence and prison reform. He met renowned Indian activist Satish Kumar in 1968, and together they established the London School of Nonviolence, where they trained activists. Taking inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, Colin believes in worker-priests and is not keen on creeds.
"There were many clergy who became engaged as worker-priests, liberation theologians and opponents of apartheid and racial discrimination,” writes Satish. “Colin was one of them. Many established priests looked with suspicion at him, with his duffle coat, sandals, beard and long hair, but there were other radical Christians for whom he was a breath of fresh air.”
By the time the exodus of Vietnamese refugees was in full-swing, Colin had established himself as a social justice champion.
"We had three main aims,” writes Colin of the 1981 resettlement project. “To keep our reception centres small, average 80 residents with a staff of five; to get the buildings for nothing; to train Vietnamese staff to take over the programme.”
This they did, and more. Founded by Colin 18 months after the centres were established, Refugee Action organised family reunions, commissioned research on the needs of refugees, helped set up the Asian Family Counselling Service, and even undertook a small initiative to rescue a group of women and children hidden in a basement in El Salvador.
These were the first projects of Refugee Action, of which Colin was appointed Chair in 1987, a position he held until 1992, by which time refugees had started pouring out of Bosnia to escape ethnic cleansing. Refugee Action supported many Bosnians as they integrated into life in the UK, and coordinated the UK’s Bosnian Medical Evacuee programme. By the end of the decade, Refugee Action had supported people fleeing catastrophe in the Caribbean island of Montserrat following a volcano eruption, and those made refugees in the Kosovo war.
Since then, Refugee Action has provided housing, legal and employment advice services; delivered youth programmes and campaigns against misinformation, asylum poverty, and discrimination against LGBT asylum seekers; conducted critical research into the lives of refugees in the UK; and helped refugees establish and run community groups.
Colin remained a trustee of Refugee Action until 2015. In 2018, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to refugees.