The West's Failure To Take In Syrian Refugees Has Echoes Of The Holocaust

The image of three-year old Syrian Kurdish refugee Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey, has served as a human indictment to the West's failure to settle the families fleeing the Syrian civil war.


Kurdi's death has shocked the conscience of many in the West, and many in the human rights community are urging it to do more to give safe passage to more refugees so they do not risk death crossing perilous oceans and dangerous trucking routes.

Some countries have stepped up to the plate to meet the challenge. Germany said it will accept 800,000 refugees, and is even planning to turn Berlin-Tempelhof – once Hitler's iconic airport – into a refugee center.

Other countries have been less than welcoming. During negotiations over the refugees that took place during the summer, one EU diplomat was quoted saying that British officials joked that they would take zero people “and double that if they were really pushed.” Czech police came under fire after they started dragging refugees off of trains and writing identification numbers on their arms. Poland announced that it will only take Syrian Christian refugees. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban was blunt, saying, “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims....Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.” These are not just empty words; Hungarian police units have been caught by New York Times reporters pepper spraying entire families of refugees.

The Gulf countries are also under fire for refusing to resettle refugees, despite the fact they exacerbated the Syrian civil war by arming and training rebels.  

Although the U.S. government has not deployed such bigoted rhetoric itself, it has also dragged its own feet in accepting refugees. Out of a population of 4 million, the U.S. took in around 1,500 by this March and plans to take an additional thousand this year. Compare this to Lebanon, which hosts more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there are no “impending policy changes” planned to the level of refugees our country takes on, while the International Rescue Committee's David Miliband said the U.S. should offer to take in at least 65,000 refugees, half of the number of refugees cleared for resettlement.

With a few rare bright spots, Germany being the brightest, the West is failing Syria's refugees. But this failure, sadly, is not historically unique. It has echoes of another refusal to resettle refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing and genocide: Europe's Jews during the Holocaust.

Nowhere To Turn To

On May 13th, 1939, more than 900 Jews left Germany aboard the SS St. Louis, traveling first to Cuba as a stop on their way to America. “It was really something to be going on a luxury liner,” said Gisela Feldman, who was 90 during her interview in 2014 but was just a child aboard the St. Louis at the time. “We didn't really know where we were heading, or how we would cope when we got there.”

The St. Louis never made it to the United States. Cuban authorities revoked almost all of the Jewish migrant visas, “probably out of fear of being inundated with more refugees fleeing Europe.” The ship turned north to the coast of Florida, but it was denied port there as well. It had no choice but to turn back to Europe.

By the end of the Holocaust and the Second World War, 254 passengers aboard the St. Louis were slain, lives which could have been saved if either Cuba or the United States had decided to grant them asylum.

The incident with the St. Louis was not unique. Across the West, there was a steadfast refusal by most governments to protect and shield Jewish refugees. In 1939 and 1940, advocates of Congress tried to pass a bill that would allow in 20,000 Jewish child refugees. Known as the Wagner-Rogers bill, it was defeated under opposition from anti-immigrant and isolationist lawmakers; the American Legion actually offered opposition to the bill by saying that it was against the laws of God to bring in children without their parents (it didn't argue for the admission of their parents as well). Antisemitism, much like the Islamophobia of today, was at least partly responsible. The cousin of President Roosevelt, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was also the wife of U.S. Commissioner of immigration, warned that “20,000 charming children would soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

The United States was of course not alone in shrugging its shoulders at the plight of Jewish refugees. When the West organized the Evian conference to talk about the refugee problem, the Australian representative T.W. White said that because his country didn't in his view have any racial problem at the moment, it didn't want to spark one “by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.” Today, Australia is the nation where the ruling government has manufactured posters implying to migrants they will die at sea if they attempt to reach their country.

One British official, Lord Winterton, told his American colleagues that any large-scale settlement of Jewish refugees anywhere in Britain's expansive empire was “out of the question”; South Africa outright barred any Jewish immigration, period.

The Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, said that allowing Jews “of even the best type” into the country would destroy Canada. In his diary, he wrote, “We must seek to keep Canada free from unrest and too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.” He said that Jews would “pollute” the Canadian bloodstream and lead to riots and perhaps even strengthen Quebec separatism, a fear in the country. Recall that it was Canada that denied an asylum application for Mohamad Kurdi, the brother of Aylan.

As ironic as it is that Germany is the one country in the West stepping up in a big way to accept refugees, perhaps it is just as ironic that Israel, the country formed as a result of Jewish migration into the Middle East after the Holocaust, is doing next to nothing for Syrian refugees. Like Turkey and Lebanon, who host millions of refugees, Israel is geographically proximate to Syria. Unlike those countries, it has closed its border to the refugees.

Never Again?

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The anti-migrant sentiments across the West are an ugly rhyme of the refusal to assist Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. But there are some signs the world is starting to wake up and escape the trap of rhyming history.

There are signs that the death of young Aylan Kurdi will turn the tide in the West. After months of refusing to take any more refugees, there are now reports that the United Kingdom will allow thousands of more Syrians to come to its country.

The remarkable example of Germany has perhaps inspired the people of Iceland. When the government said it would accept a paltry 50 refugees, 10,000 Icelanders stepped forward to offer their homes to those fleeing violence in Syria, rebuking the government's hardheartedness. An Egyptian billionaire has offered to buy an island in the Mediterranean to serve as a refugee for those fleeing Syria's violence.

It is possible that the world will change its mind and choose to be different this time, giving meaning to the words “never again” so often quoted in the post-Holocaust era. But doing so requires knowing the history of past acquiescence to evil and an active choice to do the right thing this time.

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