by Ranjit Sidhu
A few weeks ago, at the 70th year commemoration of Auschwitz, Roman Kent, a survivor of the Holocaust made a speech about his fear, that we again become bystanders to tragic events. With tears in his eyes, he said,
“When I think of the holocaust as I often do …I think of the righteous gentiles who endangered their own lives, and their families to save the life of a stranger…We must ALL be involved and stay involved, no one, no one ever should be a spectator, I feel so strongly about this point that if I had the power I would add a 11th commandment to the universally accepted 10 commandments, you should never, never be a bystander.”
The indifference of those around them is both the most haunting refrain of many holocaust survivors and also the most pressing warning for the future. Elie Wiesel, the writer of Night, in 1999 said,
“…to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman… Indifference is not a response for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.”
Elie Wiesel in the same speech went on to mention the totemic event of indifference to the plight of the Jews in Europe before the Second World War started, The Voyage of the St Louis,
“Sixty years ago, its human cargo — maybe 1,000 Jews — was turned back to Nazi Germany. And that happened after the Kristallnacht, after the first state sponsored pogrom, with hundreds of Jewish shops destroyed, synagogues burned, thousands of people put in concentration camps. And that ship, which was already on the shores of the United States, was sent back.”
The St Louis was not an isolated event, many ships full with Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism were turned back in 1938 to 1939 be it from the UK, US or Denmark or the then colonially controlled Middle East and Africa.
Looking back now, with 76 years passed, we can look back in shame how the world was a bystander to those fleeing Europe and genocide.
I am sure that 76 years from now, the world will look back at Europe today with the same shame on how we were bystanders to the thousands fleeing civil war and barbarity and let them drown helplessly into the Mediterranean Sea.
Last week, another 300 people were left to drown in the Mediterranean; the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) making it clear that they could have been saved if search and rescue efforts had not been cut.
The blood of these people and the other 3,500 who died last year on the crossing is on all of our hands in Europe, but more than any, it must be on the hands of the politicians who callously called for the lifeboats patrolling the sea to be cut, as,
“We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’”
Well the lifeboats are not there now and still they drown. The more sensible answer on why people are people still attempting the crossing is made simply from considering the composition of these refugees. In April the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that the refugees attempting the crossing of whom 50% are children, many women and “Syrians fleeing the violence in their country were the largest group.”
This should be of no surprise as the UNCHR recorded the highest number of refugees in 2013 of 11.7 million refugees. With 2.54 million from war-torn Afghanistan and another 2.2 million from Syria which is suffering it’s bloody civil war. The figures for 2014 are expected to be even worse.
With this terrible rise in war and refugees, the cry goes up that surely Europe, and the UK in particular, are right to show caution as they are being flooded by refugees reaching our shores?
Well, no. The percentage of refugees in developed countries has been failing in recent years and the majority stay in their region of displacement, so now that 86% of refugees are hosted in developing countries.
In 2013 there was a 65% increase of refugee populations in the Middle East and African populations to 2,630,700 while in Europe there was an actual drop by 1% of the total refugee population, so that a continent of 742.5 million people is now home to only 1.7 million refugees.
And what of the UK? With our current refugee population at less than a quarter of one percent of our population we accommodate half as many refugees as France, 129,252 compared to 232,500. Something that gives context when reading of the ‘flood’ of 2,500 refugees waiting at Calais.
The often mentioned story that the UK is the “go-to” country for immigrants is again not borne out by the facts. In 2013, Germany had 109,600 claims for asylum, the United States 84,400 and South Africa 70,000.
By contrast, the UK had in the previous year to March 2014 23,731 asylum applications. The UK has the same pending asylum seeking cases as Switzerland which has a population 13% that size of the UK.
That the countries where the refugees are fleeing be it Afghanistan, Syria or Libya are suffering from conflicts with more than just our fingerprints should mean rather than chastising and demonising these desperate families from taking a deadly trip for the sake of a better life, we should be chastising ourselves for not doing more to provide legitimate steps to a better future for these desperate people; we have become bystanders to their suffering and for that we should be ashamed.
When we look out and see the terrible tragedy of those desperate people on boats, trying to escape war and terror, like those Jews on boats in 1938/39, can we honestly say we have learned the lessons of our terrible past?
Was not the one lesson to be learnt was to show compassion and empathy to our fellow humans in their dire need rather than becoming indifferent spectators to human tragedy, yet again?