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Europe’s Refugee Problem, Then and Now

NEW YORK – Earlier this spring, I drove to a beautiful spot on the southern bank of Lake Geneva. My destination was the Hotel Royale in Évian-les-Bains. It was there, in July 1938, that 32 nations met for a shameful discussion that has been virtually airbrushed from our memory.

Convened by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the massive refugee crisis triggered by Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism, the Évian conference was a catastrophe. And its disastrous outcome needs to be recalled in the light of Europe’s current migration crisis.

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The Évian conference was supposed to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian Jews who were desperate for refuge. Roosevelt believed that only a collective solution could meet the challenge. Hitler, too, hoped that other countries would accept them.

In a speech in Königsberg that March, he jeered, “I can only hope and expect that the other world which has felt such deep sympathy for these criminals will be generous enough to transform this pity into practical aid. As far as I am concerned we are ready to place our luxury ships at the disposal of these countries for the transportation of these criminals.” He had already begun to expel Jews, including by placing them forcibly on ships and sending them to various destinations in the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

But, throughout Europe, the refugees faced rejection. On June 6, 1938, as preparations for the conference were underway, the US State Department received a letter concerning 51 Austrian Jewish refugees stranded on a small boat in the international waters of the Danube. The writer recalled seeing: “the heartrending fate of 51 human beings driven from one frontier to the other. We have gained personal knowledge of the unspeakable misery that has innocently befallen 100,000 inhabitants of Austria.”

And yet in Évian the following month, although many European delegations voiced eloquent dismay over the torment experienced by the Jews of Germany and Austria, they were unprepared to take concrete action. The outcome of the meeting was clear: Europe, North America, and Australia would not accept significant numbers of these refugees.

In the verbatim record, two words were uttered repeatedly: “density” and “saturation.” The European countries were already beset with population “density” and had reached a point of “saturation” – in other words, there was simply no more room at the European inn.

It was an absurd thing to say, of course, in 1938, given the size of Europe’s populations today. And it would be an equally ridiculous thing to say now, too.

To be sure, the participants in Évian could not have foreseen the Holocaust, or that Europe was being drawn into another devastating war; nonetheless, their lack of moral conscience was breathtaking. Many of the countries that refused to take in suffering refugees were themselves, in due course, occupied and brutalized by the Nazis – and desperate for the compassion that they denied the Jews in July 1938.

The Nazis must have reveled in the knowledge that their virulent anti-Semitism found an echo – sometimes not so faint – in the rest of Europe. They also came to realize that if expulsion was not possible, extermination eventually would be.

Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-migrant sentiment are again rising across Europe, and we must stop now and reassess precisely where we are. A major British tabloid newspaper recently felt it acceptable to allow one of its columnists to call immigrants “cockroaches.” Rwanda’s Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines used the same word to describe Tutsis in the run-up to the 1994 genocide, as did Julius Streicher’s Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer to describe Jews. Political leaders across Europe regularly – and shamefully – blame migrants for their national woes.

Attacking migrants or minorities – whether crudely, through language, or more subtly, through policy – is unacceptable everywhere, full stop. When words are formulated with the clear intention of causing harm and violence on national, racial or religious grounds, freedom of expression becomes incitement to hatred, which is prohibited by law. Countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes all European Union members, are bound to uphold it.

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And yet Europe’s current proposals on migration leave much to be desired. The continent needs to recall its past more sensitively, and be more generous to the desperate people crossing the Mediterranean. François Crépeau, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, observed in a recent interview that Europe, Australia, and Canada could easily resettle one million Syrian refugees over the next five years, and they could add Eritreans to that list and extend this policy to seven years. So why is Europe proposing to accept a paltry 20,000-40,000 people annually for resettlement?

To the European politician strongly opposed to migration, I suggest that the next time you need hospital treatment, take a look around you: many of the people caring for you have a migrant’s tale. And should you quench your thirst with the famous water drawn from Évian-les-Bains, you may wish to reflect on the craven failure of a conference that could have saved so many lives – and on what it can still teach us today.