Digital History Seminar: 20th Century Spain

Repatriation of Basque Children in Britain

Spanish Civil War Begins

The Spanish Civil War began in July 17, 1936 when Francisco Franco lead a military coup from Morocco into mainland Spain. The war would last for close to 3 years, ending with a fascist victory. However my particular focus will be on the repatriation of the Basque children back to Spain. Including the groups that were involved in the evacuation and repatriation process such as, National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, Basque Children’s Committee, among others. 

Evacuation Efforts

When the war began, several aid groups began to mobilize. There was not a shortage of those who were looking to help Spanish people in need. As the war grew closer to the Basque Country, their focus became keeping the women and children safe, thus beginning the search for refuge in other countries. One of the most prominent to mobilize was Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC). This organize was the head over the aid for Spain and the one from which smaller sub committees would form. One of the first to form from this organization that developed shortly after was The National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (NJCSR).  These groups became part of what is known as the "Aid for Spain Campaign"[1]. The National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief the group that organized the Basque Children’s Committee as the need for evacuations grew within the Basque Country. As war grew closer to the people defending Basque country they began to focus their needs on those of the Basque women and children. Other countries such as France, Belgium, Mexico, and others, had already been on board to accepting refugees however, Britain was far from interested [2]. Great Britain wanted to remain neutral among this conflict, having already signed the Non-Intervention Agreement. It wasn’t until the bombing of Guernica that serious actions began to take place in order to provide safety for the children. 

A separate organization known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was one of the first to completely oppose the idea of shipping these children off [3]. When the NJCSR and the BCC met  April 30, 1937 to continue the discussion of evacuation the Basque children to England just 4 days after the bombing of Guernica. The NJCSR and The Home Office of the UK set 3 agreements that would allow the children to travel. Them being; the Treasury will not be out any expense, the education and care of these children have to be funded privately, and only those who are noncombatants can leave. As well as a minimum of 10 shillings per week by the BCC must be provided in order to sustain the children going overseas.[4] Following this The Home Office allowed that the children ages 5- 12 would be accepted in the UK. That age was increased to 15 just before the children were evacuated. [5] On May 23, 1937 3,889 Basque refugee children would board the Habana and set sail for Southampton, UK. Through out the children departure and their time over seas several groups like the Salvation Army, Basque Children Committee, NJCSR, etc. were some of the few that were working to raise more money for the children. 


Upon arrival in Southampton, efforts were already happening to disperse the children among other camps in the UK. After arriving on the 23rd of May, 3 days later 400 left and were taken to London. [6] Many more children would leave Southampton and be spread across the UK in order for the resources provided by the different organizations such as the Salvation Army, to be better spread out. [7] However, just as these children had left, they were already being called back. Franco knew the Duke of Alba in Britain and pushed him to suggested the beginning stages of organizing a repatriation committee. [8] Franco would then move forward and begin spreading propaganda and lies about the horrible conditions these children were facing overseas. All to suggest that the children would no longer know or want to return to their beloved Spain. [9]

Franco understood that having these children return, would not only enforce his new Spain but intrust these children with carrying on the memory of his new dictatorship. There were still many Catholics, Republicans, and Nationalist supporters who did not want these children to leave their home land to begin with, all for conflicting reasons. So, just as these children had left, they were already being told to come back home. In the beginning stages of the repatriation struggle, Bilbao had fallen to the fascist forces in June 18, 1936. For majority of the Republicans this secured their decision in letting their children remain in Britain, far away from the war.[10] Here begins a shift in when and why these children should be returned. 
The children had only just arrived in Spain, when efforts had already begun to have them brought back to their mother country from Britain. Between 1937-1939 3,000 of the evacuated children had been repatriated back to Spain [11]. Efforts would continue on throughout the start of World War II. In 1942, after Franco's victory in Spain, a law was enacted that would call for the "reeducation" of the children that had been returned from not only Britain but the other countries that children sought refuge in like France, Soviet Union, Germany, etc. This was specifically meant for the children that had no parents to come home to, the ones that had to be adopted out. Their names were changes, and they were transferred to orphanages, or with family friend, but this made it harder for actual relatives to trace them [12]. This law had lasting affects on the children that were returned to Spain. As time went on these children became the example of the power Franco held when he won the Spanish Civil War and the innocent victims that fell to him. 


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