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Waiting People, The (1954)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Waiting People, The (1954)
For The World is Ours, BBC, tx. 8/10/1954
40 min, black & white
DirectorNorman Swallow
Production CompanyBBC Television Film Unit
ScriptMichael Orrom
PhotographyEdmond Wooldridge

Narrator: James McKechnie

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Outline of some of the measures adopted by United Nations in an effort to solve Europe's postwar refugee problem. Refugees tell their stories of hardship and tragedy against background of camp life.

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As part of the BBC's The World is Ours series (1954-56), 'The Waiting People' (tx. 8/10/1954) was produced in collaboration with the United Nations to highlight the plight of political refugees in Europe and the Middle East. Inherent in the series' claim to 'purposeful television' was its direct link with the documentary film tradition; The World is Ours was initiated by Paul Rotha, and sprang from the postwar films The World is Rich (d. Rotha, 1947) and World Without End (d. Basil Wright/Rotha, 1953).

The aim of the programme was to raise awareness of the UN High Commission for Refugees' new Camp Adoption Scheme in the UK. The scheme was designed to enlist local support for the refugees living in camps by establishing some real personal contacts between them and people in Britain and elsewhere. To this end, the programme not only documented the UN's official lines of policy but also dramatised individual stories of refugees; official statements about the work of the office of the UNHCR intersect with images of squalid, damp compartments in refugee camps and the presentation of particular problems refugee families face in their attempt to build a 'home' in the camps. 'The Waiting People' fulfilled its ambitions; there were letters asking for the personal addresses of individual refugees named in the programme; a considerable sum of money was received, as well as about half a dozen offers to adopt refugee children.

The programme locates the postwar refugee problem mainly in Europe. The refugees in Korea, India and Pakistan are "poor citizens of their own countries," in contrast with the "hundreds of thousands of people in Europe who do not possess their own rights". The refugee problem in the Middle East is presented as an essentially economic one, contrasted with heart-rending images of Eastern European refugees, suffering from sickness, infection and despair which can be countered only with aid from the UN, voluntary agencies or individuals, and "the freedom the West said it had to offer".

'The Waiting People' is one of the first programmes about refugees before the wide and systematic campaign mounted by the BBC for Eastern European refugees in the late 1950s. In the light of modern debates surrounding refugees, and their negative representation in the media - stories of 'bogus asylum seekers' - the programme is a reminder of the political complexities involved in earlier 20th century definitions of asylum and human rights.

Eleni Liarou

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Video Clips
1. San Sabba camp (3:44)
2. IRO (2:55)
3. Origins (2:30)
4. The UN High Commissioner (3:44)
Complete film (39:14)
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