West Has Not Learned Lesson of Holocaust Refugees

It would be nice to say Israel has learned its lesson, but it is part of the problem. It's time for developed countries to read the writing on the wall at Yad Vashem and grant refuge.

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Rohingya migrants resting on a boat off the coast near Indonesia's Aceh province before being rescued, May 20, 2015.
Rohingya migrants resting on a boat off the coast near Indonesia's Aceh province before being rescued, May 20, 2015.Credit: AFP
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

The Australian government has a hitherto secret weapon for keeping boat people from its shores: Australian officials paid smugglers to reverse course and take their cargo of desperate human beings back to Indonesia. 

In an incident reported last week, a boat was stopped on the high seas and its crew received $30,000 for turning back. The practice apparently has been going on for several years. It doesn't quite jibe with Australia's declared reason for preventing entry to asylum seekers coming by sea: to discourage them from boarding dangerous boats, and thus to put smugglers out of business. A skillful or lucky smuggler can get paid once by refugees to bring them to Australia and a second time not to. 

"As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one," an Australian official said. Actually, I must admit that the statement is not from recent news reports. It was made in 1938 to explain why Australia didn't want Jews fleeing Germany. It is inscribed on a wall at Yad Vashem, in the section describing the world's refusal to take Jewish refugees. A picture of that wall simply came to my mind when I read the news. 

But it's unfair to single out Australia for using payoffs on a retail scale when European governments may be doing it wholesale. As reported this week, UN officials believe that representatives of Norway, Britain and Italy have visited Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and offered cash or reduced sanctions in return for stronger efforts to keep Eritreans from fleeing. It is painful to try to imagine what new measures President Isayas Afwerki's regime might take. Refugees already report that they must evade observation towers and machine-gun nests on the border.

No one in the developed world wants refugees – not Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, not Hazaras escaping Afghanistan, not Eritreans, not Syrians. Australia relegates boat people to island camps in countries dependent on its aid. EU policy is that refugees must apply for asylum in the first European country they reach. Right now that often means "Italy must keep them." Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi now threatens to "hurt Europe," unless the European Union sets up camps in Libya to cut the flow, and the Italian media says the government may give refugees papers that will let them move north. A Danish government report claims that Eritreans are leaving partly for economic reasons rather than to save their lives, and that they can be sent home safely. 

The excruciating 500 pages of a new UN study on Eritrea give the lie to the Danish claims. In their prison-camp country, says the UN report, Eritreans face "extra-judicial executions, torture (including sexual torture)... and forced labor." In English, that translates as murder, rape and slavery. If you can't slog through the UN study, read the U.S. State Department's more compressed human-rights reports on Eritrea, which paint the same picture. 

Forgive my bitterness: I wonder if Americans are more honest than Danes because it is harder for Eritreans to reach the United States than Denmark. Every year, America accepts 70,000 refugees who apply from abroad for resettlement. For a sense of scale, consider that there are an estimated 16 million refugees in the world, which doesn't count people displaced by conflict but still in their home countries.

Those seeking asylum in America must "await their turns on the waiting list, and qualify for" visas, the State Department has said. I'm sorry, that quotation is also an anachronism. It's from a telegram sent in the spring of 1939 to a passenger aboard the St. Louis, the ship carrying 937 German Jews that was turned back from an American port and that returned its passengers to Europe. 

Yes, I too have moments when headlines lead me to conclude that the world has not changed enough since 1939. It is not Iran that makes me believe this, but rather unsafe boats and well-off nations that do not want people who speak another language and practice a strange religion. I am not suggesting that Eritrea is precisely Nazi Germany, though it occurs to me that when the St. Louis was turned back, Germany was not yet committing genocide. It was merely totalitarian and brutal, which was good enough reason to flee, and good enough reason to have let a ship of refugees land.

It would be such a relief to be able to accuse the rest of the West of hypocrisy for its attitude toward refugees while it criticizes Israel for human rights violations. Alas, such relief is unavailable, because our government's attitude toward refugees is, if anything, even harsher. We grant asylum to virtually no one. Our parliament refers to asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” our prime minister calls them "illegal job seekers," and our culture minister has called them "cancer." We have truly succeeded in becoming a nation like all other comfortable nations. 

Our government takes foreign dignitaries to tour Yad Vashem, but it does not understand the writing on the wall there. It does not need to tell esteemed visitors, "Feel guilty for what you failed to do then," or rather, it does not need to say only that. It needs to say, "Do not pay people to send boats back or to close borders." Our government needs to say, "Grant refuge," and to hear the message itself. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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