Can the EU Meet This Great Refugee Challenge?

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Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe arriving in Haifa, in 1946.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

The heartrending picture of the body of a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach, drowned last week while fleeing with his family from Syria, emphasizes dramatically the human tragedy which is gripping millions in a Middle East consumed by fanatic bloodshed. So near and yet so far from the haven they are seeking in peaceful and prosperous Europe.

Fearing death in their homeland they are risking their lives and the lives of their children during their flight. It is sadly reminiscent of the plight of refugees in other places and at other times, but not so long ago.

Seventy years ago as the persecution of the Jews of Germany was gaining momentum, the search for a haven throughout the world began. But as Germany took over Austria, and then the Czech territories of Bohemia and Moravia, and the number of Jews seeking a haven swelled – they found that most countries had closed their borders to them.

At this point German policy was not as yet to exterminate them, just to get rid of them. But nobody wanted them. International efforts to aid the refugees were limited to the Evian Conference called by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, which was no more than a sham; the doors remained closed.

During World War II, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany found that the only way to get rid of the Jews was to exterminate them, and the mass killings began. International efforts to address the plight of the Jews were limited to the Bermuda Conference, called by the United States and the United Kingdom in 1943. It was also a sham, coming up with no meaningful steps to address the plight of Europes Jews.

The only community prepared and eager to receive Jewish refugees were the Jews of Palestine, but here Great Britain stood in the way. Like todays Syrian and Libyan refugees, Jews fleeing Europe boarded hardly seaworthy craft in attempts to cross the Mediterranean and reach Palestine, but were intercepted and sometimes fired on by the British navy.

The last of these boats to leave Europe was the Struma, which left the Romanian port of Constanza in December 1941, when the Holocaust was already swinging into high gear; it reached Turkey and was unable to continue its voyage. The Turks would not allow the passengers to continue overland unless Britain issued permits for them to reach Palestine. Such permits were not issued by the British, who were obsessed by the fear that more boats of fleeing Jews would leave Europe asking to be admitted to enter Palestine.

The Struma was towed into the Black Sea and abandoned in February 1942. It sank there and the lives of 768 people, including 103 children, were lost. No more boats of Jewish refugees from Europe were to follow till the end of the war.

The Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, which culminated in the invasion of the latter by the armies of the surrounding Arab states on May 15, 1948, resulted in 625,000 Arabs fleeing their homes in Palestine and becoming refugees. The surrounding Arab countries permitted them to enter, restricted them to refugee camps, and would not let them be absorbed into their societies and economies. Nobody wanted them and the United Nations took it upon itself to care for them.

In December 1949 the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East was established and exists to this day. Its mandate was recently extended by the UN until 2017, it is now caring for five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and its budget is over $2 billion a year.

UNRWA has done nothing to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. Quite the contrary, it has actually perpetuated it. Fifty-seven percent of its budget is devoted to education in UNRWA schools where children are taught to hate Israel, and to dream of Israels destruction and returning to the homes their grandparents left in 1948. It is a refugee problem which is further from solution today than it was in 1948.

Now the nations of Europe have an opportunity to provide for the refugees from the Middle East reaching its shores. Will the EU meet this great humanitarian challenge?