Europe’s refugee prob­lem, then and now

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ear­lier this spring, I drove to a beau­ti­ful spot on the south­ern bank of Lake Geneva. My des­ti­na­tion was the Ho­tel Royale in Évian-les-Bains. It was there, in July 1938, that 32 na­tions met for a shame­ful dis­cus­sion that has been vir­tu­ally air­brushed from our mem­ory.

Con­vened by US Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt in re­sponse to the mas­sive refugee cri­sis trig­gered by Hitler’s vir­u­lent anti-Semitism, the Évian con­fer­ence was a catas­tro­phe. And its dis­as­trous out­come needs to be re­called in the light of Europe’s cur­rent migration cri­sis.

The Évian con­fer­ence was sup­posed to ad­dress the plight of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ger­man and Aus­trian Jews who were des­per­ate for refuge. Roo­sevelt be­lieved that only a col­lec­tive so­lu­tion could meet the chal­lenge. Hitler, too, hoped that other coun­tries would ac­cept them.

In a speech in Königs­berg that March, he jeered, “I can only hope and ex­pect that the other world which has felt such deep sym­pa­thy for th­ese crim­i­nals will be gen­er­ous enough to trans­form this pity into prac­ti­cal aid. As far as I am con­cerned we are ready to place our luxury ships at the dis­posal of th­ese coun­tries for the trans­porta­tion of th­ese crim­i­nals.” He had al­ready be­gun to ex­pel Jews, in­clud­ing by plac­ing them forcibly on ships and send­ing them to var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions in the Mediter­ranean and across the At­lantic.

But, through­out Europe, the refugees faced re­jec­tion. On June 6, 1938, as prepa­ra­tions for the con­fer­ence were un­der­way, the US State Depart­ment re­ceived a let­ter con­cern­ing 51 Aus­trian Jewish refugees stranded on a small boat in the in­ter­na­tional wa­ters of the Danube. The writer re­called see­ing: “the heartrend­ing fate of 51 hu­man be­ings driven from one fron­tier to the other. We have gained per­sonal knowl­edge of the un­speak­able mis­ery that has in­no­cently be­fallen 100,000 in­hab­i­tants of Aus­tria.”

And yet in Évian the fol­low­ing month, although many Euro­pean del­e­ga­tions voiced elo­quent dis­may over the tor­ment ex­pe­ri­enced by the Jews of Ger­many and Aus­tria, they were un­pre­pared to take con­crete ac­tion. The out­come of the meet­ing was clear: Europe, North Amer­ica, and Australia would not ac­cept sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of th­ese refugees.

In the ver­ba­tim record, two words were ut­tered re­peat­edly: “den­sity” and “sat­u­ra­tion.” The Euro­pean coun­tries were al­ready be­set with pop­u­la­tion “den­sity” and had reached a point of “sat­u­ra­tion” – in other words, there was sim­ply no more room at the Euro­pean inn.

It was an ab­surd thing to say, of course, in 1938, given the size of Europe’s pop­u­la­tions to­day. And it would be an equally ridicu­lous thing to say now, too.

To be sure, the par­tic­i­pants in Évian could not have fore­seen the Holo­caust, or that Europe was be­ing drawn into an­other dev­as­tat­ing war; nonethe­less, their lack of moral con­science was breath­tak­ing. Many of the coun­tries that re­fused to take in suf­fer­ing refugees were them­selves, in due course, oc­cu­pied and bru­talised by the Nazis – and des­per­ate for the com­pas­sion that they de­nied the Jews in July 1938.

The Nazis must have rev­eled in the knowl­edge that their vir­u­lent anti-Semitism found an echo – some­times not so faint – in the rest of Europe. They also came to re­alise that if ex­pul­sion was not pos­si­ble, ex­ter­mi­na­tion even­tu­ally would be.

To­day, anti-Semitism, Is­lam­o­pho­bia, racism, xeno­pho­bia, and anti-mi­grant sen­ti­ment are again ris­ing across Europe, and we must stop now and re­assess pre­cisely where we are. A ma­jor Bri­tish tabloid news­pa­per re­cently felt it ac­cept­able to al­low one of its columnists to call im­mi­grants “cock­roaches.” Rwanda’s Ra­dio Télévi­sion Li­bre des Mille Collines used the same word to de­scribe Tut­sis in the run-up to the 1994 geno­cide, as did Julius Streicher’s Nazi news­pa­per to de­scribe Jews. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers across Europe reg­u­larly – and shame­fully – blame mi­grants for their na­tional woes.

At­tack­ing mi­grants or mi­nori­ties – whether crudely, through lan­guage, or more sub­tly, through pol­icy – is un­ac­cept­able ev­ery­where, full stop. When words are for­mu­lated with the clear in­ten­tion of caus­ing harm and vi­o­lence on na­tional, racial or re­li­gious grounds, free­dom of ex­pres­sion be­comes in­cite­ment to ha­tred, which is pro­hib­ited by law. Coun­tries that have rat­i­fied the In­ter­na­tional Covenant on Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights, which in­cludes all Euro­pean Union mem­bers, are bound to up­hold it. And yet Europe’s cur­rent pro­pos­als on migration leave much to be de­sired. The con­ti­nent needs to re­call its past more sen­si­tively, and be more gen­er­ous to the des­per­ate peo­ple cross­ing the Mediter­ranean. François Cré­peau, the United Na­tions spe­cial rap­por­teur on the hu­man rights of mi­grants, ob­served in a re­cent in­ter­view that Europe, Australia, and Canada could eas­ily re­set­tle one mil­lion Syr­ian refugees over the next five years, and they could add Eritre­ans to that list and ex­tend this pol­icy to seven years. So why is Europe propos­ing to ac­cept a paltry 20,000-40,000 peo­ple an­nu­ally for re­set­tle­ment?

To the Euro­pean politi­cian strongly op­posed to migration, I sug­gest that the next time you need hos­pi­tal treat­ment, take a look around you: many of the peo­ple car­ing for you have a mi­grant’s tale. And should you quench your thirst with the fa­mous wa­ter drawn from Évian-les-Bains, you may wish to re­flect on the craven fail­ure of a con­fer­ence that could have saved so many lives – and on what it can still teach us to­day.

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