Refusing refugees – a modern genocide?

I am ashamed  that our government will not accept more asylum seekers into the UK.

From the comfort of my warm dry living room that is easy, while I watch the hardship and efforts of others as cold, drowned people are pulled from the Med.

Easy but for the fact that I see each one as somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son. I am also sad and angered by our collective UK government response, because we could do better.

It’s “genocide — nothing less than genocide, really,” Maltese Prime Minister Muscat told CNN this week.

Genocide is not word we should use lightly, and many still associate with WWII.

Back in 1943, seventy two years ago, the British Cabinet also debated what to do with wartime refugees, mainly Jews and Czechs but including a wide spectrum of persecuted minorities. At the time the Cabinet did not recognise genocide in progress. Their conversations appear not to have recognised any humanitarian crisis, so much as much as a political inconvenience. Yet the same minutes suggest they were aware of massacres. [source: National Archives]

Just like today, the 1943 politicians focussed the problem of what to do with ‘refugees’ on themselves and their response.  It was a problem for them, the British cabinet, not the refugees at risk.

They discussed how it would look and what anti-semitism / racism may occur at home to accept more. What language to use. And how difficult they suggest it was to rally international support. They discussed which departments would take the criticism and how to pretend that political discussions were taking place that weren’t. They wonder if they cancontinue to pretend in the H/C [House of Commons?] to be holding international conversations.” [p.93] Other meetings were to be held in secret.

They seem  little concerned how to solve the problems of people whose lives they would forever alter and many more  indirectly besides.

They seem more concerned to ensure that the refugees will get sent back where they came from than in their welfare.

They made decisions which would have far reaching consequences into the future, for example on Palestine.

Today’s British politicians and media tend towards using migrant rather than refugee, and often conflate the terms immigrant, refugee and asylum seekers. Usually centred on a problem real or imagined that immigration poses in the UK.

I wish we could start talking about solving the problems of these ‘people’ instead.

Politicians blame each other for lack of action. Blame the traffickers for unseaworthy boats and exploitation. Blame helps no one.

Part of the solution lies in not creating the problems to start with.
Afghanistan, Libya, Palestine. Syria. Yemen. So many places in Africa. The list is long of places to whom we sell arms and fund violence.

Yet our pre-election government could not find funds for the humanitarian needs of children and adults who needed our help until voters saw enough coffins on the evening news, a political embarrassment which forced action.

Camps will be built for internment on arrival – but is that a way to solve the problems of people who have fled their homes under duress?

Nations will now unite in yet another new war. A war on traffickers.

The well organised merchants in manslaughter expect to lose their vessels to the waves or have them confiscated. Most of these open caskets are navigated by a non-culpable refugee and the traffickers don’t care if they founder.

‘Let them drown’ has not been a policy exclusive to European leaders.

What effective difference will destroying more boats make?

This is a refugee’s only option in the last leg of a long journey from war; torture, rape and harassment. How will it stop them leaving or wanting a safe and better life for their children? Why should it? Will this policy not simply push up the price of every place on a remaining boat and drive more unworthy ones into service?

Will sending arrivals back solve anything or create some sort of game of Risk in which they can ‘play again’ until they die trying? How will they be treated if they refuse to go?

The failure of governments to listen and the resulting deaths, is indefensible when organisations and individuals predicted and publicised the effect of withdrawing search and rescue months ago.

I wondered in the interim how big the number had to become to be embarrassing. Turns out it was 900. And that’s not the total, but the one incident on one night.

The only good thing to have come from that night is some return to rescue work. But the decision to take no asylum seekers is wrong.

The right to seek asylum is set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is one of the most important obligations in international law.

People in the UK care about the callous ‘let them drown’ policy affecting would-be asylum seekers and refugees. We see through hyped-up threats of  ‘immigration’ voiced by right-wing minorities or pandered to in party mugs.  Sadly the pandering has become passivity towards the real needs of real people. It is shaping a political discourse the majority in the UK do not want, with real consequences at home and abroad.

The fear of loss  of political face is costing lives in the Mediterranean. It is making British politicians of all colours too quiet. The 7th May may see the inconvenient batten handed over to a new government.

How many will perish in the mean time?

One child drowned is one child too many. How long will our leaders focus on what they perceive as protecting our own interests and borders, and not on the people who need our help?

These people have no future if they don’t leave. They have no future if they don’t arrive alive. And no future if not welcomed when they do.

I will never forget that ten o’clock news picture of a dead  boy being carried onto the craggy Greek shore. I can imagine his mother putting that patterned warm hat on his head in the hope it would protect him from the cold weather on a rough crossing.

I see his lifeless hands hanging free in the fisherman’s arms.

And I wonder how today’s Cabinet Office minutes will read in the years to come.

photo: twitter adapted from a poster of the Italian Red Cross. #WhereisEurope

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1943 Cabinet Office minutes.

February. Refugees.

A.E. Rpt. on recent mtg. re Jews. No progress with U.S.A. No immed. chance of direct conversns. Can we continue to pretend in H/C. tht. we are holding internat. conversns. We here can do so little tht. difficult for us to take it up internationally unless U.S. co-operate.

H.O. I cd. take 1.000 or so as part of U. Nations move – but only to bring the others on. Rathbone & Co. all pressing us to admit some to encourage other A. Nations. My feeling is we’ve done too much already w’out guarantee tht. other Nations will help. Danger of anti-Semitic troubles here.

S/Doms. Advantages of explaing. diffies. in Debate – what we have done, and diffy. of doing more.

W.O. Risk of provoking discussion of Jewish Army.

A.E. Agree advantages. Trouble is disclosure of U.S. delay.

H.O. Arrange Parly. Ques. to P.M. askg. what contribn. we and Empire have made – and give it publicity.

M/L. Can Cab. Sec draft Answer to show what we have done.

Agreed: Have Ques. subject to Cab. seeing answer. Otherwise, stand firm. Have put to U.S. Chargé d’Affaires last week-end 3 points a) mtg. here. b) Agreed – await replies to these points. Ch. Whips to be asked to discourage undue interest.

****

Reception and Accommodation of Refugees.

A.E. Shd. we take line “done all poss. nil more” or “This is for U. Nations. We will try more, if others do their share”.

We favour second course. This is apart fr. what C.O. can do in Pal. for women and children. (Limited nos. give priority to w. and children)

Amendment of para 4 of telegram – agreed.

****

March 1943 Refugees.

L.P.S. Debate in H/Lds. Tomorrow. Can I use some of these figures?

P.M. Yes: don’t use ‘em all.

H.O. M/I. to seek publicity for this statement. Law. “Czecho-slovak nationals” vice Czechs”

M.A.P. Cd. a total be put in: small gobbets don’t give impn of large total.

K.W. Only if the total is really impressive.

P.M. Consider this point.

****

April 1943

A.E. U.S. have asked if we cd. take few hundred Stateless refugees. ? Say we’ll take a few more if U.S. will take a few.

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Refugees: Bermuda Conference. May 1943

A.E. Neutral countries to take more. Camp in N. Africa to relieve immed. pressure on Spain. Revival of inter-Govt. Cttee. These are the 3 main points. Encouraging tht. we & U.S. delegates (not all easy) got on v. well together.

G.Hall. a) Diffy of U.S. doing anything: for 2 days: then they came along v. nicely

L.P.S. Anti-Semitic letters: put it on basis of all refugees, not Jewish refugees – i.e. by describing them by nationality not race.

L.S.A. P.5. India has taken 11.000 not 5.000. para. 14. 185 W.O. Para. 15. Arabs have already got the farms. We have now asked them to put up camps H.O. Minor corrections – notify to applic. Authy. for record?

A.E. Debate. Peake to open qua Conference. Senior Minister to wind up (? Member of War Cabinet)

L.P. Giving assurance to neutrals tht. they won’t have to keep them indefinitely. Does this mean they will go back whence they came?

H.O. This is the understanding. Our only undertaking is to see tht. they get back.

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July 1943

P.M. I’m committed to creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Let us go on with that […]

S/Doms. Don’t dissent. But what I want is to face up to formulation of a proper post-war policy.

P.M. Not a good time for statements on long-term policy.

 

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Minutes source: National Archives

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