Voyages of the damned: asylum seekers and xenophobia

The MS St. Louis arrives in Havana, Cuba -
 only to be turned away
It is almost exactly 74 years to the day since the end of the "Voyage of the damned" - the return of the MS St. Louis to Europe.

For those who don't know, the St. Louis, under the command of Captain Gustav Schröder, was a ship bound for Havana, Cuba in 1939, carrying 937 Jewish men, women and children to safety from Hitler's Nazi regime.  But when the St. Louis arrived, the captain and his passengers were dismayed to discover that the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their visas as well as changed the tourist and asylum laws.  They were turned away.

Captain Schröder, a non-Jewish German, then sailed for the US, but was turned away from Florida by the coastguard.  So concerned was the captain to get his passengers to a point of safety, that even contemplated running his ship aground so as to avoid returning his passengers to Europe.  But the US coastguard prevented this (it is reported that they fired warning shots over the bow of his vessel).

Next he sailed for Canada.  Attempts were made to persuade the Canadian prime minister to accept the refugees.  But the attempts came to nothing in the face of a government (and populace) hostile to the concept of Jewish immigration.

In desperation, Schröder contemplated wrecking his vessel off the coast of the UK to force authorities there to take the refugees - but ultimately abandoned this plan after the British agreed to take 288 of the passengers.

In the end, Schröder was forced to return the majority of his passengers to Europe.  There they disembarked in Belgium and The Netherlands, with some refugees taken by France.

Of course, all these countries were shortly occupied by the forces of the Third Reich, and their Jewish populace was decimated - taken off to various killing grounds.  No one knows exactly what happened to most of the passengers of the St. Louis who returned to Europe, but given the context it is fairly certain that many perished in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Sobibór.

What makes this story topical right now isn't merely the fact that we've just passed the 74th anniversary of the St. Louis debacle.  Rather it is particularly poignant because recent events would seem to indicate the following:
History has taught us nothing.
The federal Australian government's recent changes in asylum seeker policy are a case in point.

We are now told that no asylum seeker arriving by boat will ever gain Australian residency.  Instead, the best they can hope for is resettlement in Papua New Guinea (PNG): a neighbouring developing nation in relation to which our own government issues stringent travel warnings.  Having lived in PNG for almost 5 years, I have some idea why it would do so (regardless of my continuing fondness for that country and its people).

Will the Australian government's new policy "stop the boats" (as incessantly demanded by our opposition for the last 5 years)?  Yes, I believe it will do just that.  What makes me think so?  Let's be brutally frank here: there is no good reason for an asylum seeker fleeing persecution in, say, Iran or Sri Lanka to want to end up in PNG.  The high rate of violent crime, grinding poverty and rampant disease, combined with the relative lack of infrastructure, medical facilities and work/business opportunities, mean that this destination does not provide any sort of potential "new start" for an established middle class (what some call "economic migrants") fleeing tyranny in the Middle East.

Many (I would say most) asylum seekers are sure to conclude that it is better to languish for years in a UN refugee camp somewhere with the hope (at least) of being resettled in the prosperous West.  They might even conclude that it is better to stay and home and risk persecution by an authoritarian regime.  After all, they would have been heading to PNG already if it were a destination of choice (that country was already a signatory to the relevant UN refugee convention, albeit previously subject to certain exclusions).

Boarding the St. Louis - bound for Cuba
So I think concerns raised in PNG about how PNG will handle an "uncapped" influx of refugees are really quite unfounded.  Why?  I just can't see there will ever be many refugees for them to manage.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (Australia) and Peter O'Neill (PNG) are banking on the fact that there won't be.

The effects of the new Australian asylum seeker policy should filter through very quickly to both refugees and the people smugglers.  Once this happens (and perhaps after testing Australian/PNG resolve with one or two boats) there will be no reason for an Iranian, Sri Lankan, Afghan or other asylum seeker to travel across the world - just to be resettled in PNG.  After all, there are similar developing nations much closer to "home".
"But hey, so what - right?  I mean, it'll stop the boats!  And we all know how critical that is!  We can't have these illegals jumping the queue now can we?  I mean, if we allowed this sort of thing to continue there's no telling where it would end.
Besides, we all know that most of them are economic migrants.  They're not genuine 'refugees'.  We know this because... well, because they pass through multiple countries to get to us - countries like Indonesia!"
I imagine that way back in June 1939 this was precisely the sort of confused, emotionally-charged pre-judgment experienced by the passengers of the St. Louis - at the hands of the governments of Cuba, the US, Canada and the UK as well as a large number (majority?) of their citizens.

The refugees were all "rich Jews" who had paid "a lot of money" for their tickets.  They weren't really destitute.  Besides, they were travelling right across the Atlantic.  If they simply wanted asylum, what was wrong with Eastern Europe or Russia?  How about North Africa?1  Why not go "back" to Palestine?

No, to borrow from today's terminology, these were just "economic migrants" (read "middle class from somewhere else").  They didn't need "refuge".  And just supposing they did, no one cared.

Let's cut to the chase shall we?  We all know very well that the passengers of the St. Louis were denied entry to the countries where they sought asylum for one very simple reason: they were Jewish.  And the governments, in line with a large percentage of the people, didn't want to be "swamped by Jews".  After all, they had "alien customs", "wore strange hats, beards and ponytails", "ate odd food", "killed their animals cruelly" and "wouldn't assimilate". That, and also they were "taking over everything".

I can see how people must have justified their own sentiments in relation to the St. Louis back then:  So a couple of hundred Jews were going to be sent back to Europe - potentially to end up in one of the Nazi killing centres.  A regrettable thing.  But surely this was a necessary cost in order to send the "strong" message to the rest of European Jewry not to bother trying to "flood" their countries?

I know that I proved Godwin's Law immediately in this essay by comparing our present situation with that of the world during the time of Hitler.  I know many will find fault with this as a result.  But ask yourself why this comparison isn't manifestly warranted...

After all, if you are one of those people who is "concerned about Australia being swamped by boat people" ask yourself honestly - and I mean honestly:
"Exactly what underlies my concerns?"  
Imagine for a moment that the boat people are coming to our shores from New Zealand, escaping some political, social or environmental upheaval.  Would you have us treat our fellow Australasians in the same way as we treat people from Iran and Sri Lanka?  Would we send them to Manus Island, Nauru or elsewhere to languish in tents or converted containers for half a decade or so, only to be resettled in PNG?  I dare say, we wouldn't.

Initially the passengers were
filled with euphoria.
No, if you are truly honest (with yourself) you'll acknowledge that you are primarily "concerned" because you don't want more Muslims coming to Australia.  Aside from some sundry racism (that might be directed towards Christian Arabs, Baha'i Persians, Buddhist Sri Lankans etc.), that is pretty much it: Islamophobia.

Does this sound familiar?  It should: it is this different to being concerned about "the Jews".
"Yes, but the Jews and Muslims are different.  The Muslims blow things up, and they are terrorists, and they won't assimilate..."
Sure.  And in the 1930s the Jews were "dominating world finances and government", and "introducing Communism", and "not assimilating"...

Put aside your fears and think for a moment: just think.

Think back to, say, 1985 and ask yourself whether that chap Ishmael who ran the local newsagency "looked like a terrorist": I bet that back then he was just another "new Australian" to you - no more objectionable than a Sikh, a Buddhist... or Jew!  I bet he was regarded no differently than we Southern European "wogs" and "dagos" were from the 1950s to the 1970s.

So what has changed?

Well, geopolitically speaking, a lot.  But we can be pretty sure of one thing: our friend Ishmael's likelihood of being a "terrorist" hasn't.  Nor has his likelihood of being other some sort of "threat to Australian culture".

Like any other group of people, the Muslim population has its fair share of trouble-causers, political activists and religious zealots.  But the vast majority are... just ordinary people.  People who want to work, raise a family, entertain friends, celebrate weddings, write novels, dance, paint, play music...

There is no reason to suspect we will be "swamped" by them; that they will "change our culture".  As has happened with previous waves of migration, they will absorb us just as we will absorb them.  In coming decades some of our television personalities, leading scientists, cricketers and politicians might have middle-Eastern names.  If this troubles you think of all the Jewish names in the US - from Albert Einstein to Jerry Seinfeld.
"Ah, but what about the UK?  You see how they have 'gone to the dogs'!  All those race riots and things.  That's because they allowed too many Muslims in!"
I see.  A few radical Muslims make the papers and we assume all (or at least a "majority") of people of one faith are a potential "threat"!  Has anyone checked the criminal statistics?  From my own recollections of studying criminology, there was no greater crime rate among immigrants - Muslim or otherwise - than there was in the general community.

Yes, Muslim extremists dominate the world headlines right now.  But ask yourself: is it really because Islam is the problem - or can we ascribe the present problems to international political wars/tensions combined with the well-established processes of labelling and interactionism?

In other words, are Muslims "the enemy" right now partly because that's what we call them?  Can we really divorce the rise of radical Islam from the lines we are both drawing in the sand - ie. from the increasing polarisation of Muslims and non-Muslims?  Can we imagine for a moment the same problem arising if the religions of Israel/Palestine happened to be Sikhism and Hinduism - or perhaps two different brands of Christianity (as has happened in Northern Ireland and the Balkans)?

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young Muslim and facing distrust, suspicion, hatred and abuse  - simply because of the faith and culture into which you were born.  Imagine being faced with a world of "them and us" - and feeling the pressure to choose?  Wouldn't your chances of radicalisation be greater?

Being from the Balkans, I can understand this process.  I've seen the most moderate Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians, people who once lived in harmony with their neighbours, become vehement nationalists and hateful bigots overnight.

Nevertheless, you might say:
"However it started, this is not my concern.  Islam is now a problem.  We can't let these people in.  They will cause trouble.  We have to send the boats back."
Captain Schröder returns his ship to Hamburg
So do you really think people who arrive by boat from, say, Iran, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan are likely to be Muslim terrorists?  They might not even be Muslim (particularly in the case of Sri Lanka)!  And even if they are Muslim, why assume that they are likely to have terrorist/fundamentalist/extremist leanings?  Might they not be like that newsagent we used to know - remember Ishmael?  After all, they've chosen to come to the West, for heaven's sake!  Pressures of selection would suggest that extremists are the least likely people to want to flee some "Sharia law state".2

And don't well-funded terrorists travel by air?  Or do they risk being held in detention for 5 years in Nauru where they they twiddle their thumbs while sweltering in tents/containers, facing the uncertainty of whether they will ever be granted asylum?3

But let's assume for a moment that our policy actually works: it deters Muslim refugees who, for whatever reason, will experience, and "cause", friction in Australian society.  It might even deter the odd radical Islamist.  Isn't the policy worth it?

Well, I guess it depends how expendable we feel individual human beings are.  I imagine some people are still "thankful" that the St. Louis didn't spark a "mass migration" of Jews to the US/Canada/Cuba.  The deaths of those aboard the "Voyage of the damned" were regrettable, but ultimately "necessary".  In the same vein, a "harsh" policy is warranted to "protect our borders".4

I certainly don't subscribe to this notion.  I can't imagine turning a blind eye to the suffering of ordinary people, fleeing persecution and hoping for a chance at a new life.  I can't imagine taking against them the fact that they were part of a middle class in their former country - capable of scraping just enough money to get away (when their poorer compatriots could not).  I can't imagine regarding them as mere statistics - "collateral damage" in a necessary war to "protect our borders".

No, to me refugees are real people - people with faces and names; people with hopes and aspirations; people with drive, determination, and resilience.  I'm talking about people like my genial, and expert, physiotherapist, Sam: a Persian of the Baha'i faith escaping persecution in Iran.  I'm talking about my pharmacist Sarrah: a hijab wearing Muslim who speaks with a typical Aussie accent, greets me warmly and compassionately and is genuinely interested in my well-being.

And I'm talking about my friend Tony: a man of my own age whose Vietnamese parents tearfully placed him, then a young child, on a boat with total strangers; who drifted in a broken down vessel in the open ocean for almost a week; who spent 5 years of his childhood in a UN camp in the Philippines before being resettled in the West; a man whose bravery, strength of character, compassion and work ethic continue to be a source of inspiration to me; a man who I am proud and honoured to call "brother".

These are who I think of when I hear the word the "refugees".  If all you can think of is some "queue jumping5 economic migrants" then perhaps you ought to meet some real refugees.  Perhaps you ought to hear their stories.  Perhaps you ought to try to put yourself in their shoes.

Because in the end, you don't need to be a "bleeding heart liberal" to have empathy with refugees.  You just need to have ordinary human compassion.  And you can't be a bigot or xenophobe.

I'm sure that back in 1939 there were many people in Cuba, the US, Canada and the UK who quietly rejoiced when the St. Louis was turned away.  I'm sure they justified it in their own minds on the basis of "border control"4 and "we can't take everyone."6

Look deep into your heart for your own sense of humanity and ask yourself: "What would I have done when faced with the St. Louis?"  If you currently advocate "turning back the boats" you're kidding yourself if you think you would have accepted the Jewish refugees on board that vessel: back in 1939 they were the equivalent of our Muslim (and other) boat arrivals today.  If you're afraid of being "swamped by Muslims" today, then the odds are you would have been afraid of being "swamped by Jews" back in 1939.

How times (and policies) have changed...
History has judged those who turned away the St. Louis.  It has done so harshly; and for good reason.  Everyone who supported, whether through vocal advocacy or with quiet indifference, the refusal of those Jewish passengers has their blood on his or her hands.

And make no mistake: history will similarly judge us for our asylum seeker policy.7

It will see this policy as the latest in a series of increasingly punitivemeasures; measures designed to deter new arrivals by making an example of those "expendable" individuals who have already arrived.  It will remember that we started out on our policy by making them spend 5 years or so in "off-shore detention".9  It will recollect how both our political parties lurched even more to the right in a desperate pitch to the electorate's easily-stoked xenophobia -  until eventually we refused even to consider applications for asylum from those who happen to have arrived at our shores by boat, palming them off onto a poor, largely undeveloped third-world neighbour.

It will recall that we did so mostly because the asylum seekers might be Muslim.10  Well I for one don't want to be on that side of history.11

So what’s the answer?  It’s probably rather simple (if electorally unpalatable):

I can’t see why we don’t have an Australian processing centre in Indonesia – one that fast-tracks their applications.  Then they simply wouldn't need to board boats...

I know this brings us back to the fear of being “swamped by Muslims/minorities” again.  But, apart from other absurdities, this fear ignores the huge number of refugees we already take from UN camps in Africa, the Middle East, South-east Asia etc. - not to mention the number of people who enter Australia by aircraft and then stay on after the expiry of their visa.  It also ignores our lack of control of "regular migration", which some might say is a far more pressing problem.

Once here, refugees could be released into the community in a remote or rural area - or other area with a declining population.  Tasmania would be just one suitable location.  All those except certain people who are assessed as "high flight risk" would be free to mix in the community while their applications were being processed.  Where would they otherwise “run” to?  With the risk of botching their asylum (and later, residency) chances, they would have every reason to stay put.  If their residency were granted, it could be made conditional on remaining in the same area for another 5 years or so.

This would certainly be much cheaper for the taxpayer than Nauru and Manus Island etc. - not to mention more decent.

But this sort of approach is very unlikely to be adopted.  Why?  Because it isn’t punitive.  And we all know well punitive policies worked under the Howard government – look at how low the boat arrival numbers were!   We need to go back to that.  Everyone was happy!  Everyone, that is, except the refugees kept in detention on Nauru - some of whom have been there so long they recently decided to burn things down just so as to draw attention to their plight...

I was recently reminded of the words of our national anthem "Advance Australia Fair":
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
How ironic this now sounds.

[2015 Addendum:

If you want your specific fears about boat people allayed - or your arguments in favour of "stopping the boats" smashed to smithereens - go here.

It's sad that 2 years after I wrote this article we have a different government pursuing even crueler (though far more secretive) policies regarding boat arrivals - turning them away at sea.  While many derive "comfort" from the virtual cessation in boats arriving, and try to kid themselves and others that "deaths at sea have been reduced" what they are trying to keep out of sight (and out of mind) is the horror of the almost certain fate that awaits those returning to a land they have fled on political grounds.  The fact that we don't know who these people are and what has become of them is no more "comforting" to me than not knowing exactly what happened to the passengers of the MSS St Louis.  Though we don't know who is being returned where, we can be certain that we have condemned many thousands to imprisonment, torture and death.  Or at best, poverty and starvation.  We've turned our backs on our fellow human beings - and we have never had greater cause to be ashamed as a nation.]


1.   I note that the South African Aliens Act 1937, motivated by a sharp increase the previous year in the number of German Jewish refugees coming to South Africa, brought the migration to that country almost to a complete halt.

2.  Far from being "undesirable", selection pressures probably ensure that people willing to risk everything and cross oceans in flimsy craft have the drive, stamina and work ethic to contribute meaningfully to their adopted country.  The fact that they are from a middle class usually implies some level of skill and education.  These are precisely the sorts of people who made Australia.  Why wouldn't we want more?  What better test of character?  Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever met a former refugee who wasn't as hard-working and honest as one can get.

3.  It is worth remembering that of all of the known Muslim terrorists so far, not one has been identified as a person who arrived anywhere by boat.

4.  "Protecting our borders" is a nonsensical concern for Australians.  We have full control of our borders.  We see boats coming from many thousands of miles away.  On the rare occasion that they get a bit closer than usual, we are genuinely surprised.  Besides, even if they slipped past our satellites and navy, what are they going to do?  Dock at a port?  Land somewhere remote on the northwest coast somewhere and try to walk to the nearest town?  Australia's isolation, arid landscape and underpopulation mean that we have a natural "protection" of our borders; we will always know who comes here.  Whether we let them stay is entirely a matter of our UN obligations and how many we can realistically take.  But we're in no danger of "losing control" of our borders.  This is a fear-mongering myth.

5.  There is no queue for refugees or migrants.  This is a myth.

6.  "We can't take everyone" is another myth.  We aren't being asked to "take everyone".  We already take a quota of refugees via UN treaty obligations.  If all of a sudden we started getting more than our "fair share" of boat-arrivals, we could validly ask for the burden to be shared among the other developed nations.

7.  Calling refugees "illegals" is a prejudgment.  Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?

8.  There is no reason to treat boat arrivals differently from aircraft arrivals.  Both should be treated fairly and decently.  Currently, the major political parties treat boat arrivals very inhumanely – expressly so as to “deter” newer arrivals (very lengthy processing, detention in offshore prisons with little/no decent facilities, etc.).  This is euphemistically termed “taking the sugar off the table” and “withholding the welcome mat”.  I call it "imprisoning people without charge or trial for lengthy periods without just cause".  To me, this is reprehensible.

9.  How is it fair to keep people in detention (read "prison") for 5 years or so without charge, never mind trial - all because they are suspected of not having fulfilled the criteria of not being genuine refugees?  Notice how quickly people prejudge boat arrivals, making all sorts of assumptions about them, before a single piece of evidence is taken.

10.  I've received some feedback that it is unfair to "play the race/religion card"; many people want the "boat people problem sorted out" because they are concerned about drownings, not because they are racist/anti-Muslim.  But as the head of the Anglican Church in Tasmania, Bishop Harrower, said recently the emphasis on preventing drownings is a cop out:
"It almost seems that we put up the drowning of the people, which we need to be rightfully concerned for, as some sort of justification for doing something else that seems to me to be quite horrendous," he said.  "They're fleeing for their lives so of course they're going to take risks."
11.  Opposition parliamentarian Malcolm Turnbull had this to say:
"Mr Rudd has had to lurch to the right, to use his own terms, with a policy that is much harsher than anything John Howard had.  The only thing we don't have a shortage of is bad options. Every option is cruel and harsh, the status quo is cruel with people drowning at sea."
Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic