In 1939, as Europe stood on the verge of all-out war, Nazi Germany, true to their promise, had issued and implemented 400 different decrees for the regulation of the public and private lives of Jews. Their properties were confiscated, and their businesses and synagogues were burned down. These laws effectively purged Jews from schools, academia, business and public life, and declared them “undesirables”. Many Jews were forced to seek asylum in other Western countries.
In May that year, a vessel named MS St Louis set sail from Hamburg, carrying 937 Jewish refugees aiming to seek asylum in Cuba and the US. Upon arrival in Cuba, the ship was refused permission to land. The stranded ship headed to US shores hoping for permission to land.
The US Coast Guard prevented them from landing and turned them away too. The Canadian government turned a blind eye to their plight, and did not offer any hope or asylum to the refugees aboard the St Louis.
The ship had to return to Europe where the refugees were accepted by various European countries. However, most did not escape the terror of the Nazis. It is estimated that a quarter of the ship’s passengers died during the Holocaust.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that if the US, Cuba, or Canada had displayed leadership by accepting these asylum seekers, despite their means of arrival, many lives could have been saved, and the plight of Jews in Europe would have received more urgent attention.
Cuba, the US and Canada failed these asylum seekers. In the following years when the US was involved in the war against the Nazis and the Axis, it corrected its stance, and asylum seeker ships such as SS Navemar were allowed to land in the US, and the passengers were granted asylum.
World War II left the world in ashes, and with many lessons. Perhaps one of the biggest achievements of the international community in the aftermath of the war and the Holocaust was the drawing up of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to protect people seeking asylum from persecution and avoid a repeat of the mistakes made before the war.
Australia became a signatory to the refugee convention in 1954. It showed leadership by accepting Vietnamese refugees under the Fraser government, and accepting refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other countries under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments.
Today, three quarters of a century after the St Louis became the subject of political ping pong in the Atlantic, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers are currently stranded in what Human Rights Watch has called “maritime ping-pong” in the Andaman Sea.
It is a humanitarian tragedy unfolding right in front of the eyes of the international community, and a stone’s throw from Australia’s northern borders. These ships have been afloat for weeks in horrid circumstances, and the regional response has ranged from outrageous to dismal.
Australia’s response to accepting some of these persecuted men, women and children has been the political equivalent of a person placing their hands on their ears, and screaming ‘La La La!’ Prime Minister Abbot replied, “Nope! Nope! Nope!” and put our leadership and strategy for the resolution of a regional crisis on full international display.
The Abbott-isms come as no surprise, not because the Prime Minister is particularly gaffe prone and has a peculiar way of responding to urgent situations, but because his denial of the plight of these people follows an opportunist and denialist precedence.
While we urge other countries to abide by the rule of law and commit to their international obligations, we pick and choose the international laws we wish to abide by.
Where the rest of the world, including the US, see stateless and stranded refugees and offers asylum to many, the Australian government sees people smugglers, and only people smugglers. Where regional countries, including the Philippines, have come forward to help on humanitarian grounds, Australia has resorted to political sloganeering and looked the other way.
The danger is that once we cherry-pick international laws, we set precedents for regional countries, and lose the moral high ground. If we can choose to willfully ignore, manipulate, and ignore our international commitments, what’s to stop or shame other countries, with bleak human rights records, from doing the same!?
In 2015, we have passively and gradually come to accept this standard of response and practice from our government. We sit idly by as our sense of obligation to the rest of the world, and our understanding of human rights and their importance, undergo a paradigm shift. We morph into an isolationist member of the international community.
Above: The MS St Louis.
If the responses in both social and news media are any indication of the matters we care about, the indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers - who have broken no laws by coming to Australia to apply for asylum - is a non-issue. The alleged abuse of children in detention on Nauru does not raise many eyebrows; the stranded Rohingya are somebody else’s problem. Johnny Depp’s dogs, however, are both an issue and a matter of reputation for Australia, and deserve consistent media and political attention.
The United Nations considers the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted people.Human Rights Watch says state policies and widespread discrimination have rendered the Rohingya stateless in their own country.
They face organised communal violence and their treatment borders on ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They face a purge from Burmese society, and have been declared as “undesirables”.
The regional response to the stranded Rohingya has, for the most part, been the moral and political equivalent of the North American response to MS St Louis in 1939.
In fact, the regional response of the Asia-Pacific countries to the stranded Rohingya carries the hallmark of Australian policy towards refugees arriving by boat: “Nope! Nope! Nope! Don’t die in our backwaters. Die somewhere else!”
[This article was first published in New Matilda.]