The Continuing Refugee Crisis
The continuing refugee crisis, involving movements of people from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Iran, is global and acute in nature and is once more making headlines and trending on social media, particularly in response to President Trump’s executive action on immigration and refugees that was issued on 27 January 2017 (Holocaust Memorial Day, no less). In 2015, the number of people forcibly displaced by persecution or war rose to 65.3 million, up 5.8 million from the year before. Not since the 1930s has the scale of displaced persons been so high nor so well-publicised. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it is to the interwar period that people often turn in discussions of current government inaction, in both the US and UK. However, ways in which the past is deployed varies and reflects an often muddled understanding of the history of national immigration and refugee policies.
While earlier in the current crisis, commentators led with headlines such as ‘Britain has always provided a haven for refugees’ or used an imagined past to call for more action in the present, a more complex engagement with the past and its ‘lessons’ has developed in 2017. Echoing this, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s statement on Trump’s recent executive actions stated: ‘During the 1930s and 1940s, the United States, along with the rest of the world, generally refused to admit Jewish refugees from Nazism due to antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears’. Still other commentary focuses on the rich history of immigration in the US or chooses to emphasise Emma Lazarus’s words found at the base of the Statue of Liberty as a way of underscoring the ‘American vision of liberty’, which, for them, includes the acceptance of immigrants.
These various understandings of the past point to a more perennial challenge: the lack of clarity in understanding what limited international action in the 1930s and, significantly, what has and has not changed since then. Although the lack of ‘humanitarianism’ in the 1930s is lamented, the reality was that the framework for international action was limited, and that state interests were consistently prioritized above any other concern. Or put another way, the conflicting narratives of the past that appear in contemporary analyses revolve around what Henry Fiengold identified as the ‘assumption that modern nation-states can make human responses in situations like the Holocaust’ or any other humanitarian challenge. By looking at the UN-led Humanitarian World Summit that took place in May 2016 alongside the international meeting that look place at Evian-les-Bains in the summer of 1938, it is possible to see how far global humanitarian endeavours have changed as well as the continued challenges to coordinated and collaborative responses, and through this, to give clarity to those who seek to use the past as a lesson for the present.
At the urging of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thirty-two countries met at Evian to discuss the world’s response to the Jewish refugee crisis. Although called with grandiose claims of a ‘humanitarian purpose’, expectations were limited from the outset. No participating country was asked to amend its existing immigration laws or to offer finance to any scheme suggested. This, it was agreed, was to be the responsibility of Jewish agencies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the meeting saw participating countries – from great powers like Britain and France to small Latin American countries like Haiti – offer sympathy for the refugees and condemnation for Nazi tactics, but no immediate or material aid to those in need (with the exception of the Dominican Republic). In fact, the only concrete result of the meeting was the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees – a forum in which countries continued to discuss the crisis but offered little practical help.
This outcome reflected the broader geopolitical context of the period. ‘Great powers’ like the US, Britain and France set the parameters and outcome of the meeting. Although Evian was ostensibly a response to a humanitarian crisis, the motivation for the meeting was political and intended to solve the difficulties caused by the refugee crisis for nation-states and not for the refugees themselves, evident in the failure to involve fully any non-governmental agencies or representatives. Inaction was variously justified by financial concerns, lack of employment opportunities, a fear of provoking further persecution by the Nazis and even concern for increasing antisemitism domestically. At Evian, state interests and domestic political concerns shaped the failure of the international community to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi-controlled Europe.
The Humanitarian World Summit that took place in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2016 was different in many ways. It brought together a much larger geographic group of states to discuss humanitarian (including refugee) questions. Rather than the 32 countries represented at Evian, some 173 countries were present at the summit. It also brought together a wider range of participants, reflecting a change in the humanitarian framework and perceptions of the role of governments in the intervening decades. For example, NGOs, refugees and leaders from the business world and civil society were all present in Turkey. At Evian, the meeting was called for and attended by the established ruling elite, while Jewish refugee agencies and other charities, although in attendance, were not allowed to participate. Today, a range of voices are heard, including, importantly, many of those affected by humanitarian crises.
When looking at these events in comparison, it is obviously important to recognise that the situation in the 1930s was different in many ways to our own contemporary refugee crises: in the 1930s, the movement of refugees came from Europe itself; those leaving were predominantly Jewish; and, despite the efforts of the League of Nations, the framework of international cooperation and even the understanding of international humanitarianism were relatively new and definitely shaky.
However, important parallels between then and now remain, particularly in the potential limit placed on the outcomes of the Summit by contemporary geopolitical concerns. While the world has come a long way in responding to humanitarian crises – in the sense of a declared purpose, a recognition of the broad range of participants that need to be involved in the process and the importance of helping to solve longer-term causation – the second hurdle on which action at Evian fell still remains unsolved: the role of governments.
We are currently standing at a crossroads, when state interests are being challenged by significant and unrelenting humanitarian crises at the same time as they are forced to respond to economic challenges, the threat of global terrorism and rising racial tensions, often by re-establishing borders (literally and figuratively) and turning inward, actions reminiscent of the 1930s. Convincing states of the need to participate wholeheartedly (including economically) and collaboratively in resolving crises remains a significant challenge and a potential limit on humanitarian action, particularly as one of the largest and most important Western powers is not only actively limiting the aid it offers, but doing so on a platform of self-interest and based on religious and racial identities.