Jews in 1939, Rohingya in 2015: Will the World Act to Prevent a 21st Century SS St. Louis?

The international community's apathy toward the plight of the Muslim-Burmese refugees stranded at sea mimics the indifference that saw many Jews sent to their death. Will countries of conscience remain silent?

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Rohingya refugees wait to be rescued by Acehnese fisherman off the coast of East Aceh, Indonesia, May 20, 2015.
Rohingya refugees wait to be rescued by Acehnese fisherman off the coast of East Aceh, Indonesia, May 20, 2015.Credit: AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

The persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma has been among the world's greatest human rights disasters over the past century. However, this tragedy has only recently emerged as a hot-button international issue after the Rohingya have opted for drastic means to escape the sordid conditions faced at home.

Largely based out of Burma’s Rakhine state and neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades on the grounds that they are illegal immigrants, or the descendants of illegal immigrants. Since a 1982 citizenship law effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless, the Burmese government has barred freedom of movement while formally withholding access to education and subjecting adults and children alike into forced labor projects.

In 2012, the already apartheid-like conditions took a drastic turn for the worse. Deadly clashes between the Rohingya and the majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted, under the watch (and sometimes explicit participation) of Buddhist security forces. Roughly 140,000 Rohingya were displaced, forced and confined into sordid IDP camps.

Since 2012, the grim situation has spiraled into an undeniable humanitarian catastrophe. Institutionalized prejudice remains, while indiscriminate violence and virile rhetoric has increased. The world has failed to address the systematic persecution, and conditions are ripe for an even greater humanitarian disaster.

International indifference has fostered a reality where thousands of desperate Rohingya – 25,000 in 2015 alone – have turned to human traffickers to smuggle them over the Andaman Sea. However, the Rohingya are opting for a different sort of nightmare under the human traffickers.

Rohingya are packed by the thousands in rickety ships described as “floating coffins,” largely devoid of food and water. If the Rohingya even survive the journey, they are often held captive in camps in neighboring countries until their families pay the traffickers a ransom. Mass graves of trafficked refugees have been discovered in Thailand and Malaysia – two countries considered by Rohingya to be a preferable alternative.

Thousands of Rohingya are currently stranded at sea, unwilling participants in a game of “human ping-pong” due to neighboring countries’ hesitancy to accept refugees. Following international pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia – the very country that has allowed human traffickers to run amok – announced they would provide temporary shelter to the refugees, conditional upon their repatriation in a third-party country within the year.

There is an alarming historical precedent for refugees fleeing genocide by sea, only to encounter international apathy.

In May 1939, the SS St. Louis, carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the ever-worsening conditions in Nazi Germany, set sail for Cuba. Upon arrival, Cuba refused the vessel permission to dock. The ship then headed to the U.S., where passengers were so close that they could see the Miami lights. However, the Coast Guard refused to allow the ship to dock, despite the direct pleas of passengers and leading U.S. Jewish figures.

The ship returned to Europe, where passengers were repatriated by several states. More than a quarter of the ship’s passengers eventually died in the Holocaust.

The similarities between the Rohingya flotilla and the SS St. Louis are quite disconcerting; even more worrisome are the parallels between the international indifference to the impending genocides.

When the SS St. Louis attempted to dock in Miami, the State Department sent a telegram to the ship’s passengers telling them to "await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States."

One only needs to look at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s appalling lack of empathy to shed the false pretense that the world has learned its lesson. Abbott emphatically refused to bring in the stranded Rohingya, saying that “Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a start a new life. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.”

On Friday, Thailand – yet another catastrophe-enabler – will host a regional summit aimed at resolving the crisis. Burma agreed to attend, on the condition that the word “Rohingya” is not used, instead referring to the refugees as “irregular migrants.”

The international community convened similar conferences preceding and during the Holocaust. In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt convened the Evian Conference to resolve the Jewish refugee problem. Of the 32 participating countries, only the Dominican Republic expressed willingness to accept a capped number of refugees. Five years later, the U.S. and the U.K. met in Bermuda to discuss the ever-worsening Jewish refugee problem. Again, both countries maintained their immigration quota policies.

An undeniable historical precedent exists for what happens when international indifference meets a humanitarian crisis so far gone. As the Bangkok conference approaches, the question must be asked: Until what point will the world allow the parallels to accumulate?

Ben Samuels is an editor at He tweets at @Bsamuels0.

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