From “None is Too Many” to “Few is Too Many”

The MS St. Louis, a ship that was carrying 908 German Jewish refugees in 1939, when it was turned away by Cuba, the United States and Canada

Has the world learnt from migrant crises past?

“None is too many.” This was the phrase used in 1939 by the director of immigration Frederick Blair, when asked by Prime Minister Mackenzie King about how many Jewish German refugees to take into the Canada.

Picture this: it’s the 1930s, you are living in Dusseldorf, a moderately large city in Western Germany. Your family has lived in Germany for hundreds of years – there are even records of your family living in the German countryside since the 17th century. The butcher shop your family owns has been doing modestly well. You are as much a part of German society as Bratwurst or Krombacher. Then, one cold November evening in 1938, your family’s shop, along with all your friends’ families’ shops, and your local place of worship, is destroyed. You cannot leave your house to check the damage for fear of your life; after all, it’s after the curfew recently imposed on your family by the government. Now that the government has turned on you, your source of income is destroyed, and yours and your family’s life is in danger. You have turned into a refugee.

This is exactly what happened to my family.

How the world dealt with the German refugee crisis was, in a word, atrocious. During the years of 1938 and 1939, there were approximately 400,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees. The United States had previously taken in roughly 85,000 Jewish refugees, but Canada only took in 5,000. With no solution for the remaining hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of the Western civilized countries met in a conference in Evian, France on July 6th, 1938. Present were the leaders of the free world, including those from the US, UK, France, and Canada. The combined number of Jews they pledged to take in? Zero. Out of the 32 countries present, only the small island nation of the Dominican Republic agreed to take in Jewish refugees. Why did these venerable countries refuse to help the helpless? Because bringing in refugees would hurt economic stability.

Have we let our compassion drown? From the events that have occurred over the last year or so, it is clear our efforts have improved – but not enough.

An even worse display of inhumanity in the face of the German refugee crisis was the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 German Jewish refugees that departed from Hamburg in 1939. These hundreds of refugees, fleeing oppression and death were turned away from Cuba, the United States and finally, Canada, before heading back to Germany – to the passengers’ doom.

There have been many other refugee crises since the Jewish German refugee crisis – like the Indochina refugee crisis of the 1970s or the Balkan refugee crisis in the 1990s. However, none have been as publicized and as important to the Western World as the current Syrian migrant crisis.

Since 2011, due to the relentless wars in the Middle East and North Africa, 4 million people in this region have become refugees. These refugees are at the eye of the storm, living in a region fraught with constant fighting and killing between a plethora of militant groups, including ISIS, the Assad regime, and the Al-Nusra front.

Have our humanitarian responses to refugee crises changed since the 1930s? Are we still like the nations in the 1930s that prioritized economic stability over human lives? Have we let our compassion drown? From the events that have occurred over the last year or so, it is clear our efforts have improved – but not enough.

The current crisis began getting media attention when Italy ended its Mediterranean search and rescue operation, ‘Mare Nostrum,’ in October 2014. ‘Mare Nostrum’ was purposed to rescue migrants whose boats had capsized in the sea. The discontinuation of the program resulted in a dramatic rise of migrant death toll; the next few months alone saw the deaths of 1,780 to 2,500 migrants.

This was not the only questionable policy countries implemented during the ensuing twelve months. In an almost eerie repetition of history, Eastern and Central European countries, including Hungary, Macedonia, and Serbia, erected barbed wire fences along their borders to keep migrants out. Yet, the world has idly stood by, bystanders to an unfolding crisis.

These past few months, horrific incidents in Europe, including the abandoned van in Austria and the drowned young Syrian refugee in Turkey, made the migrant crisis the most covered news story in the world. The crisis has presently become a hot-button topic in Western Europe, North America, and Australia (notwithstanding its absence from the U.S. Presidential GOP debates).

Nobody tried to help my family in the 1930s, and I do not wish the same fate for the refugees in this crisis. Silence is a conscious choice.

The sudden media spotlight, and the ensuing positive support of the world to the crisis, is something evidently eluded in the German Jewish refugee crisis. Between the summer and fall of 2015, France has said it will take in 24,000 refugees over the next two years, Britain has pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, and Germany expects to take in 800,000 refugees by the end of 2015 alone.The EU has also pledged 2.4 billion euros (2.6 billion USD) of aid to countries dealing with an influx of refugees, including Greece and Italy.

It may appear that the world has learned its lesson from the migrant crises of yesterday. We have gone from not a single country allowing any German Jewish refugees, to a handful of countries officially welcoming Syrian and North African refugees. And yet, there is room for improvement. The countries who have remained silent –  Denmark, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Russia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea – have not offered to take in a single refugee, despite being wealthy enough to do so. In a time where human lives are at stake, the burden should lay upon the whole world. Nobody tried to help my family in the 1930s, and I do not wish the same fate for the refugees in this crisis. Silence is a conscious choice.

However, the issue that must be debated and discussed seriously is the security/Islamophobia sentiment. With hundreds of Islamic Jihadists cells and xenophobic supremacists running wild, the next big story of our era will be how the Syrian/North African migrants integrate and are accepted into our community.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.