History will damn us for our apathy towards migrants

15th January 2019

In the garden of the Righteous Among Nations in Jerusalem, a memorial to the gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust, the smell of pine fills the air and the sun dapples the white stone plaques, engraved with thousands of names. One of those Righteous, Gustav Schrӧder, the captain of the ship St Louis, ferried around 900 Jewish refugees to America and Canada in 1939. Both countries refused to take the refugees. Britain grudgingly accepted around 200, and the rest were split between France, Belgium and Holland. The next year, the three continental countries were invaded by Nazi Germany. It is estimated that around 250 of those aboard the St Louis died in the Holocaust.

A mere 26,973 people worldwide are recognised as “Righteous Among Nations”. The population of Germany alone in 1939 was 67 million. For those of European descent, one tries to distance oneself from their family’s past.

For those with family on the Allied side, it is easy to forget that they too were guilty of turning a blind eye to extremism. Grandpa Joe fought the Germans, but he may have also sympathised with, or ignored Oswald Mosley. This passivity helped created the political climate which allowed Britain to only take a handful of refugees off the St Louis, and send boats of refugees attempting to reach Mandatory Palestine back to Nazi-dominated Europe.

We said “never again”. Never again to looking the other way and to allowing people’s human rights be taken away. We enshrined it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet we are complicit in perpetuating the same crime to which we said “never again”: indifference.

In the wake of the 2007 financial crash, populist discourse has blamed the underlying socio-economic problems in the West on migrants: they steal our jobs, rape our women and convert Christian children to their strange religion. Migrants and refugees are an easy scapegoat: they have no voting rights, nor do they have the platform to speak out.

The effect of this rhetoric is that increasingly hostile immigration policies in Europe have pushed migrants onto the North African and Middle Eastern coastlines. Frontex, the EU’s border security released a report on December 4, stating that attempted illegal border crossings dropped to 150,000, the lowest since 2015. The reality behind the decline in numbers is not flattering to Europe’s reputation of being the bastion of liberalism.

In 2016, the EU struck a deal with Turkey, giving a 6 billion euro aid package to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey rather than letting them into Europe. As a response to the growing numbers of refugees in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan built a 781 km wall along the 900 km border. In the first months of 2018, Turkish border police detained around 85,000 Syrians refugees attempting to cross the border and forced them back into war-torn Syria.

In July 2018, The Associated Press reported that Algeria made over 13,000 migrants walk back over the Sahara Desert over the course of 14 months in anticipation of the closure of migrant routes to Europe.

Italy’s deal with the Libyan Coastguard to keep migrants on the southern coast of the Mediterranean has exacerbated the conditions in Libyan detention centres. Amnesty International estimated that around 20,000 people were apprehended attempting to cross in 2017.

There are approximately 6,000 migrants currently in Libyan detention centres. They report torture, rape and extortion. Some die in the centres, while others are sold into slavery. A UN report published in December 2018 found that the majority of women held in the camps had been raped or witnessed it.

For those that evade the coastguards, a perilous journey lies ahead. In 2018, 2,242 of the estimated 4,503 migrants worldwide that died, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Rescue ships, responsible for saving migrants, have come under significant pressure from Mediterranean governments. The Sea Watch 3 stayed afloat for 19 days at the turn of the year, while the Maltese and Italian government refused to take the migrants, and other European countries stuck their heads in the sand. Malta finally conceded on January 9 and allowed the passengers to disembark, and they will be distributed between 8 EU countries.

Life isn’t necessarily easy for migrants in Europe either. They must make their way through complex legal systems in a foreign language, often with little help. Many fear detention and repatriation. The Guardian reported that in 2017, Britain detained over 27,000 immigrants. Most of those detained are released or deported in a number of weeks or months, but the report found several cases where someone was detained for over two years.

Racist abuse is commonplace. In November, a Syrian boy, Jamal, and his sister were attacked in Huddersfield by their classmates. It transpired that Jamal had contacted the school authorities three weeks previously, detailing the bullying that he had experienced over the two years since he joined the school. This is not an isolated event. The UK Home Office reported a 17% increase of hate crimes in 2017/18, of which 76% were racially motivated.

As images of tattered dinghies flick over our our smartphones and newspapers, we think “poor souls”, and continue on with our day. We roll our eyes at Tommy Robinson’s PR stunts. While Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews is incommensurate to the current migrant crisis, our intentional blindness then and now to extremist discourse and its repercussions on human life is the same then, as it is now.

We cannot physically nor politically accommodate all the people that attempt to migrate to Europe. However, by implementing policies that decriminalise the movement of people we can help to end some migrants’ suffering.

Firstly, we must help to tackle the roots of migration and promote stability and security in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. For those fleeing persecution and violence, we must find a fair and just processing system, so that they are not sent back to danger. For economic migrants, though politically difficult, a system of temporary visas would be a practical solution. This would allow for people to contribute to the workforce on a temporary basis, thus establishing circular migration.

This is impossible for an individual to achieve. However what is possible is to do is to create a political climate in which these policies become feasible. This starts with challenging extremist discourse, and promoting a greater understanding and respect of people of different cultures and creeds.