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by Myriam Miedzian
IN 1938, PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT called for an international conference to deal with German and Austrian Jewish refugees trying to flee their homelands, where their lives were threatened. The ensuing conference in Evian, France, July 6-15, was a humanitarian failure. While the representatives of thirty-two countries deplored the persecution of the Jews, only one, the Dominican Republic, offered to open its doors to a substantial number (100,000). Over 250,000 Jews were thereby condemned to death.
Close to eighty years later, hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and African refugees fleeing death and destruction from wars and terrorist groups are today desperately seeking entry to nearby Europe.
Back in 1938, giving refuge to Jews was viewed as a worldwide issue, not something only the neighboring European countries needed to deal with. The common expectation now, however, is that it is up to the European nations alone to carry the burden, to figure out how to open their doors to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. There has been much criticism, often condescending in tone, about their handling of the situation, as when the New York Times editorialized on September 10th:
When European interior ministers gather on Monday, they should recall that many of their own people were refugees not long ago, and that their union was based on values that evolved through their own history of suffering and flight. They must understand that beyond simply sharing a burden they are called on to do what conscience dictates.
While this perspective dominates, there has been some criticism of viewing the problem as solely European. One focus has been on the failure of some Muslim countries to do their share. A September 4th Washington Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, entitled, “The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees,” points out that according to Amnesty International the “six Gulf countries — Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.” Tharoor notes that “this claim was echoed by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch...”
THE TIME HAS COME TO CALL an international worldwide humanitarian conference that would include the Gulf countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. These and other countries capable of taking in refugees must be called upon to take their share. How about China, which has so many economic interests in Africa, stepping up to the plate? Intense political pressure needs to be exerted.
It would be naive to expect that a large number of countries will take in huge numbers of immigrants, but once the humanitarian burden is viewed as not just Europe’s, many would be embarrassed into accepting far more than they do now.
The least likely to do so might well make significant financial contributions to help poor Muslim countries accept and integrate refugees, and to help those who already harbor large numbers, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, to integrate them.
There has been some positive change since the 1938 Evian Conference. The World War II murder of six million Jews led to an increased recognition that coming to the aid of people whose lives are endangered represents a worldwide humanitarian obligation. The term “genocide” was first coined in 1944. While this recognition has been very limited in terms of actual interventions, it does at least provide a framework for making humanitarian demands.
Because the present situation is caused at least in part by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this country needs to take a leadership position both in terms of taking in a large number of refugees and working to get other countries to do their share.
It is difficult to argue with the view that President Bush’s war is responsible for much of the destabilization of the Middle East — a view so commonplace that it has been echoed by such diverse figures as former French president Chirac, Al Jazeera correspondent Imram Kahn, and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump!
• “As France foresaw and feared, the war in Iraq... weakened the stability of the region... It gave terrorism new terrain for expansion.” —Chirac (A.P. 1/5/07)
• “The Iraq war... solidified and unified disparate young men from different countries into following the path of violent jihad...” “Al-Qaeda in Iraq became ISIL” —Imram Kahn, (Al Jazeera (9/9/15)
• Because of the Iraq war, “the Middle East became totally destabilized.” —Donald Trump (8/6/15 Republican debate)
Taking in large numbers of refugees will undoubtedly create economic and political hardships for the nations that do so, but certainly not more hardship than for Europe.
THE VERY EXISTENCE of the European Union is threatened by the refugee problem. Several countries, including Germany, have already closed their borders — but a major feature of the European Union is open borders. Hopefully these closings will be temporary, but if the refugees keep coming and no other countries are willing to share the burden, they may well become permanent. Eastern countries, including Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, are refusing to accept any refugees. This is likely to create a major schism in the EU. Unemployment rates are very high in many countries, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and, of course, Greece. The opposition to taking in more Muslim immigrants has already led to considerably increased support for rightwing parties, even in countries that do not have high unemployment rates such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Holland. Many of these political parties oppose the very existence of the European Union.
The best solution would be to put an end to the senseless destruction, horrendous bloodshed, and rape that have created more than ten million refugees. Western countries need to do everything possible to help bring an end to it — but this is not an easy task, and in the meantime the refugees need to be helped.
Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com), a contributing writer to Jewish Currents , is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence. This article is adapted from the Huffington Post with the author’s permission.