A Bitter Road: Refugees Past and Present

A Bitter Road: Refugees Past and Present

Image: Transport of Jewish Hungarians arriving at Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, May-June 1944

Last month the Weiner Library opened an important exhibition on the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s. We are pleased to publish Professor Dan Stone's opening speech here.

In today’s world, 24 people a minute are displaced. One in every 113 people is either an asylum-seeker, internally-displaced or a refugee. There are about 65 million refugees in the world, about the same as the population of the United Kingdom. About 40.8 million people are internally displaced within their own country. Of the 21.3 refugees displaced outside of their country of origin, more than half come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. 86% of the refugees under UNHCR care are located in low- and middle-income countries close to the countries from which the refugees have fled. Turkey is the country with the largest number of refugees in absolute terms, with more than 2.5 million refugees; Lebanon, with one refugee for every five citizens of the country, hosts more refugees per head of population than any other country. Some 51% of all refugees, according to the UNHCR, are children, many of them travelling alone.

Given these statistics, the fact that Europe appeared to struggle to cope with 1.5 million refugees over the last few years seems strange. The fact that it is struggling still, and continues to talk of a “refugee crisis”, is even more strange. It is not that the continent cannot afford to help these people.

Of the world’s 65 million refugees, some 10,000 tenaciously made their way to Calais, where they were stopped from proceeding to the UK and, until a few days ago, set up camp in the Jungle, a place which should never have been allowed to exist in one of the richest corners of the world (I’m talking of Europe as a whole, not Pas-de-Calais). 10,000 is a six-hundred and fiftieth of 65,000,000, or 0.015%. These are not people who lack initiative or talent; they have determinedly made their way across dangerous terrain and ugly encounters with people smugglers and border guards in order to fulfil their dream of entering Britain. This country, with its “proud tradition of helping the oppressed”, has denied them entry and, with the exception of a few hundred children hurriedly allowed in as the French were sending the bulldozers in, refused even to allow children with relatives in the UK and, under Lord Dubs’s amendment, unaccompanied children, to enter, leaving them exposed to the dangers of the camp. Words such as “cynical” come to mind.

What does it mean to be a refugee? After the Second World War, when the UK was proud to be involved with European and international organisations, an important body was set up called the International Tracing Service. It still exists today, and most of its remarkable collection of 30 million documents can be consulted at the Wiener Library in electronic form. Among its holdings are documents from the International Refugee Organization, the body which administered the ITS for three years from January 1948 until December 1950. In January 1949, a meeting of the IRO and voluntary organisations took place in Geneva. Many people spoke about the mission and practical capabilities of the IRO, including Albert Cohen, from the IRO’s Division of Protection. In his address, he set out what he considered to be the three handicaps under which “the refugee who is stateless” labours:

The first lies in the fact that the refugee is an alien in any and every country to which he may go … He does not have that last resort which is always open to the “normal alien” – return to his native country. …
The second handicap lies in the fact that the refugee is not only an alien wherever he goes, but also he is an unprotected alien. … He has no Government behind him. … and the Bible says, “Woe to the man that is alone.”
The third handicap lies in the fact that this man who is everywhere an alien, and an unprotected alien, is in the majority of cases an unfortunate, a piece of human flotsam. … He is sometimes the object of the suspicion or contempt which are readily directed at aliens without protection; it is an accepted fact of mass psychology that the behaviour of a national group varies according to whether it has to deal with a “normal” alien, reinforced with the invisible strength of the State whose protection he enjoys, or with the “abnormal” alien, the refugee, powerless and unprotected, who in the last resort is unable to return to his native country – and who for that very reason, and most unjustly, is often treated as a suspect and an undesirable.

Cohen concluded from all this one simple statement: “It is obvious from all this that if there is any human being who needs protection it is the refugee.”[1] It remains, to my mind, obvious still, and we have to thank brave people such as Harry Jacobi and Alfred Dubs for continuing to state the obvious.

Why then are states and many within them resistant to “the obvious”? When Jacobi and Dubs went to Calais and spoke to residents of the Jungle in May 2016, they encountered at first hand what in scholarly work is often presented as a theoretical problem, as in these words of Amos Goldberg’s: “On the one hand, the nation state inevitably creates refugees, while on the other their very being presages the disintegration of the nation state, which is necessarily founded on equality before the law … The refugee thus constitutes a political category whose structured exclusion undermines the structure of the political system that created it in the first place. … That is why empathy toward the refugee presents such a great challenge and is so unsettling, since it is directed at the traumatic element within the modern nation state. … The refugee is thus the ‘other’ of the political system made up of nation states.”[2] No wonder then that nation states, especially when they are going through a period of shrinking into themselves, pretending that the outside world doesn’t exist, find refugees threatening. Who wants to know? “Apparently”, Hannah Arendt wrote, “nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”[3]

Arendt's essay was published in January 1943. A few years earlier, in a famous book, You and the Refugee, published just before the outbreak of the war, Norman Angell argued that many people who were refugees had become so thanks to British policies. Therefore, “we certainly cannot slam the door upon some of the very best of the world’s people at the very moment that they perish – perish sometimes as the result either of conditions we may, even unwittingly, have helped to create, or as the direct outcome of behaviour we have asked them to adopt.”[4] As we know, some refugees did in fact make it into Britain; the number of children admitted through the Kindertransport scheme – although not their parents – was quite large: the same as the number of people in the Jungle. Perhaps among them there is another future Rabbi Jacobi or Lord Dubs. Even if not, certainly they are all human beings who deserve better than to be treated worse than criminals.

[1] Albert Cohen, “The Aims of the International Refugee Organization as Regards Legal and Political Protection”, speech at IRO and Voluntary Organizations Conference, Geneva, 18-21 January 1949. 6.1.1/82509659#1, ITS Digital Archive, Wiener Library, London.

[2] Amos Goldberg, “Empathy, Ethics and Politics in Holocaust Historiography”, in Aleida Assmann and Ines Detmers (eds.), Empathy and its Limits (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 70-71.

[3] Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943), in Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, ed. Ron H. Feldman (New York: Grove Press, 1978), 56.

[4] Norman Angell, You and the Refugee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939), 27.


The Jungle

The Jungle

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives