Europe is a bystander to human tragedy, yet again

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 Nightin 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?

Ranjit Sidhu is Director and Founder of SiD, Statistics into Decisions ( and blogs on tumblr here

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

11 Responses to “Europe is a bystander to human tragedy, yet again”

  1. Matt London says:

    Sorry to be pedantic – and I know this is a serious topic – but when you said “A few weeks ago, at the 70th year commemoration of Austerlitz” did you really MEAN Austerlitz?

  2. Dave Roberts. says:

    I wonder how long it will be before the ” open borders ” lobby are comparing the situation in North Africa with hundreds of thousands trying to get into Europe to the plight of the Jews in the 1930s. The answer is there isn’t any. Nothing to see, move on.

  3. Matt London says:

    What happened to the comment I left yesterday, please – in moderation when I last saw it – it WAS supposed to be helpful!

  4. Ranjit Sidhu says:

    I keeping with the article I will respond to your comment Dave Roberts. I did not mention open borders in the article and have made the argument that leaving people to drown in the sea, when half are children and most fleeing war is immoral and we should not be a bystander to it. Also, that in years to come people will come see it as a shameful as they do The St Louis. Your comment “Nothing to see, move on” is beautifully ironic considering the content of the article

    Thank you for your comment.

  5. ex labour says:

    The problem here is that the UK has already had a massive influx of migrants from Europe and we are continually being haranged by the left wing press that our NHS and schools are struggling…I wonder why ? Where do these people fit into your statistics ?

    We are not the worlds policeman anymore we just dont have the capabilities with our navy slashed in size. We hear that migrant numbers arriving are growing, so does this not indicate some sort of pull factor ? We hear also that terrorists are now embedding themselves in the refugee flow, to be activated when necessary.

    We are a small island with limited resources and space and have already attracted large numbers of immigrants with the resulting pressures on us all. There are many countries with a mediterranean border, so why are they not out there ? I sympathise with their plight, I really do, but maybe if we had control of our borders we could accomodate some of them, but we have millions from Europe and millions more expected over the next few years and we are powerless to do anything about it. We can no longer be the open door.

  6. Madasafish says:

    Of course, creating refugees is often the hallmark of regimes who want to impose their will on people by the most brutal methods possible. And recent UK experience is that those refugees or their offspring are not often grateful to the country which accepts them and form the nucleus of internal terrorism. See the 7/11 bombers , the Greenwich executions and teh teenagers flying off to join ISIS as three examples.

    UK Human Rights Legislation makes it virtually impossible to expel any refugee – no matter how evil their aims and actions..

    Any suggestion that our country should be open to more people who can pose a real threat to the current population is naive unless it is accompanied by moves to ensure those who deserve it by breaking UK laws are returned to their starting country irrespective of its dangers.

    I see only a one sided proposition with no attempt even made to engage withe the justified concerns of UK residents.

    I suggest to Ranjit that IF he is serious in his proposal, then he engage with those who want reform of the Human Rights legislation and come up with some practical proposals. Until he does, I suggest he is wasting his time and will convince only those who live in the liberal elite who will not be affected by his proposals in everyday life.

  7. Stephen says:

    The Jews on the St Louis were indeed refused entry by the US. But what Mr Sidhu does not mention is that 288 of them were admitted to Britain, 224 to France, 214 to Belgium and 181 to the Netherlands. Numbers returned to Nazi Germany: zero.

    For some reason Mr Sidhu prefers to concentrate on “ships full with Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism turned back from the UK”. I would welcome details of these, I think, imaginary ships.

  8. Ex Labour says:

    @ Stephen

    Steady fella. You’re in danger of exposing the left wing liberal progressive elite rhetoric and they dont like that. You’ll be in the naughty chair soon.

  9. Stephen says:

    Thinking about the original post a little more:

    I would equally welcome, but do not expect to receive, details of “ships full with Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism turned back from Denmark”. Since Germany and Denmark have a common land border …

    Likewise, when it comes to “ships full with Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism turned back from the then colonially controlled Middle East and Africa”. I have an uneasy feeling that Mr Sidhu may be conflating:

    The sinking in Haifa harbour, by a Jewish organisation, of the SS Patria with the loss of about 267 Jewish refugees: the British had intended to transport them to safety in Mauritius, but afterwards let the survivors (about 1,500) stay in Palestine on compassionate grounds.

    The MV Struma, torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine, with the loss of 781 Jewish refugees plus 10 crew.

    The British refusal, in 1947 (rather after the end of Nazi persecution) to allow the SS Exodus, with4,515 Jewish passengers, to land illegally in Palestine. All the Jews were moved to safety elsewhere.

    I would much appreciate reply from Mr Sidhu on this matter.

    Incidentally, I would point out that the correct response to the Nazis was to attack, invade and utterly overcome them. Would Mr Sidhu approve of a similar response to the regimes that are causing the present wave of refugees?

  10. Ranjit SIdhu says:

    the Jews that were returned to France, Belgium and Netherlands, like all the Jews in those countries were subject to the German policies towards Jews. It is estimated over 200 died. However, if you think that is the point then you are missing the point altogether of the ST Louis then you are missing the point all together, I would recommend re-reading Elie comments.

    On your second point:

    Dennis Ross Laffer has written on the plight of the refugees in particular reference to the Evian conference and the effect of the Anschluss. There you can find numbers refused from many countries including the 35 ships turned back by Argentina. Any books on the Jewish refugee problem 1934 to 1945 will give you many, many examples of the thousands of numbers refused by different countries. Too many to all list, so just to focus a few examples that come straight to mind:

    the Struma carrying 760 Turkey detained her and her passengers for 10 weeks. On February 23, 1942 Turkish authorities towed her back into the Black Sea and cast her adrift.

    The Salvador, On December 12 the Salvador was wrecked in a violent storm near Istanbul. 223 persons, including 66 children, lost their lives. The survivors were taken to Istanbul. 125 survivors were deported back to Bulgaria,

    The Tiger Hill, was intercepted and fired on by Royal Navy gunboats off Tel Aviv, and was beached.

    Mefküre:Soviet submarine sank Mefküre by torpedo and shellfire, and then machine-gunned survivors in the water.

    I could go on…..

    I would just raise a couple of points:

    1. By calling these “imaginary ships”, although I am sure you did not mean to you, you are making a very grave insinuation on the situation the did occur.

    2. Secondly, I have treated your remark with courtesy and with respect even though the implication is that I “made up facts to make a point”. I would ask that you do try to understand the points made before making such castigations.

    Thank you for your comment

  11. Stephen says:

    Mr Sidhu

    Thank you for the courtesy of your response. I will try to make my meaning clear, since it does seem we have not understood each other.

    Nobody would dispute that, in some cases, Jews trying to escape from the Nazis were refused entry into countries that might have accepted them. I entirely agree that the refusal by Cuba, which had initially offered them landing permits, to allow those on the St Louis to land was shameful; and the refusal of the US to admit them was not much better. But these refugees, undoubtedly deserving of sanctuary, were in fact given sanctuary, all of them, by other Western governments: which, I think, is not at all the impression that someone ignorant of the case would get from reading your article.

    Indeed, you quote Elie Wiesel as writing of the St Louis “Sixty years ago, its human cargo — maybe 1,000 Jews — was turned back to Nazi Germany”. But in fact, none of them at all were turned back to Nazi Germany. That was the point I wanted to make. That many of those given refuge in France and elsewhere were subsequently killed by the Nazis was tragic, but could not possibly have been predicted in 1939, and is not relevant to your argument.

    The heart of your argument, as I understand it – please correct me if I am mistaken – is that “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”. But it seems to me that, 76 years ago, the world was in general not a bystander to the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany. According to Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Holocaust, the UK alone took in about 52,000 such refugees before September 1939. Some bystanding.

    If I may remind you of what you wrote: “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”. I do not see how the undoubted delinquencies of Argentina, Turkey or the Soviet Union are relevant to your claim. Nor do I see the relevance of the beaching of the Tiger Hill off Tel Aviv: as far as I know, nobody was killed and nobody was returned to Nazi Germany.

    I would prefer to believe that when you wrote of “many ships full with Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism turned back from the UK” you were temporarily carried away by the emotions that naturally arise when considering the Jewish catastrophe. I notice that you have not identified any such actually existing ships.

    I trust I have understood the points you have made: and I hope you will understand mine.

Leave a Reply