The last time they turned back the boats

Today in the Straits of Malacca, we’re seeing a grotesque re-enactment of one of the great moral failures of the twentieth century, as the nations of the region collaborate to produce a new ‘Voyage of the Damned’.

Some 8000 Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi migrants are currently stranded, lacking food, water and sanitation – and the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are pushing their boats back into the ocean, knowing they have nowhere to go.

‘In the name of humanity,’ pleads the International Organisation for Migration,’ let these migrants land.’

But appeals to basic human decency carry little weight given that much wealthier countries have made the exclusion of asylum seekers a national priority. In particular, with Australia now towing refugee boats back to Indonesian waters, Ban Ki-moon’s call to the nations of south-east Asia to ‘keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need’ rings extraordinarily hollow.

It’s all depressingly reminiscent of the infamous voyage of the St Louis, a vessel that left Hamburg for Cuba in 1939 carrying 937 Jewish asylum seekers fleeing the intensifying Nazi persecution.

By then, the treatment of the Jews had produced a refugee crisis spilling out across Europe. In 1938, the world’s leaders met at the Évian Conference, ostensibly to plan a unified response. At the time, Hitler taunted the participants at Évian about their hypocrisy: they condemned Germany but few welcomed Jews to their own countries. ‘I can only hope and expect,’ he said, ‘that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.’

The St Louis – which was indeed a luxury liner – duly put the world to the test.

By the time the St Louis reached Havana, news of its journey had spurred huge anti-Semitic demonstrations, in which demagogues urged Cubans to ‘fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.’ The Cuban government refused to allow the asylum seekers to disembark. The ship, officials insisted, had to turn around.

The captain tried instead to land at Florida. But, in the US, the reaction was the same: the American state department told passengers they must take their turns on the waiting list.

The St Louis stayed in limbo for a month, becoming an international cause cause célèbre. Eventually, Jewish organisations negotiated entry visas for European countries thought to be safe. Some of the refugees arrived in Britain. Others, however, were offloaded in France, Belgium and the Netherlands – and when Germany conquered the continent, many of them were murdered.

After the war, the story of the St Louis became a cautionary tale, an awful example of casual indifference in the face of atrocity. Indeed, the so-called ‘Voyage of the Damned’ helped inspire the refugee conventions of the post-war era, which were explicitly intended to prevent such scenes playing out again.

Yet, here we are, seventy-six years later, with boatloads of desperate people bounced from harbour to harbour by governments unwilling to take responsibility for someone else’s suffering.

If you want evidence for how thoroughly the norms established after the Holocaust have been trashed, you need only look at the conservative press in this country. While the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, condemned Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for ‘pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths,’ the editorialist in the Australian welcomed a vindication of Tony Abbott’s domestic policies. Indonesian’s decision to turn back refugee boats was, it said, ‘awkward news for those who seek to maintain the rage against Operation Sovereign Borders’.

Foreign editor Greg Sheridan agreed: ‘A lot of nations are now looking at Australia’s policy success. Not before time.’

It’s a dynamic familiar from the 1930s when the refusal of one nation to accept refugees emboldened others to do the same: the Australian policy legitimises an Indonesian decision which, in turn, normalises the Australian position.

But there’s another, even grimmer, parallel.

By turning back the St Louis, the US and other nations behaved precisely as Hitler had predicted, allowing him to argue that, despite the Évian Conference, the democratic states despised the Jewish people as much as he did. In other words, the international failure to provide refuge for that vessel did not merely jeopardise the Jews travelling on it, it also threatened those already subjected to Nazi rule by signaling that no-one cared what was done to them.

Today, Human Rights Watch says that Burma’s treatment of Rohingya constitutes a crime against humanity. But the footage of the navies of south-east Asia treating the Rohingya as dangerous intruders provides an important propaganda victory for the Burmese regime. Look, it can say – all our neighbours hate them, too!

It’s worth pointing out that the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim, in a time in which Islamophobia has become, in the industrialised nations, the main socially acceptable form of bigotry. The Australian Senate has, after all, just agreed to a public inquiry into halal certification, in an obvious fillip for the Islamophobic lobby.

Again, there are echoes from the past. The St Louis was rebuffed in part because, in the nations to which it appealed, low level anti-Semitism was an unremarkable aspect of public life. The constant demonisation of Islam in the west – of which the Senate’s shameful inquiry is an obvious example – helps foster a public indifference to refugees who are Muslim (or assumed to be such). Ask yourself this: what would be the reaction in Australia if the TV footage of the boats in the Straits of Malacca showed white Christians screaming and pleading for mercy?

At the moment, Tony Abbott is self-consciously showcasing hard-line refugee policy to the world, a program based, as the odious Katie Hopkins approvingly noted, ‘tiny hearts and whacking great gunships’. The maintenance of such a model in Australia – one of the richest and most secure nations on the planet – helps normalise and justify similar policies by other nations, particularly those facing much larger population flows.

The struggle for refugee rights in Australia is thus more important than ever.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Slight mistake in one para. ‘Some of the refugees arrived in Britain. Others, however, were offloaded in France, Britain and the Netherlands – and when Germany conquered the continent, many of them were murdered.’

    I assume the second reference to Britain should be to say Belgium.

  2. Thanks for putting into an article what I have been thinking about this. I am a visual artist so my response will be a cartoon in the near future. Look for it at my Facebook address. p.s. My profile picture is a cartoon head.

  3. Yes, a disturbing “Voyage of the Damned” type scenario. Unsure though if the parallel drawn between the “casual anti semitism” of the West in the 30s and escalating bigotry against Muslims now entirely stands up since Malaysia and Indonesia (as well as Thailand) are doing the turning away of fellow Muslims. I take the point though that a country like AUSTRALIA has set a dangerous precedence with its turn back the boats policy. A thought provoking article Jeff. Thank you.

  4. Only thing to do is turn back the boats. They will take over our Country and start trouble like they do in their own. They look very healthy and well dressed and have plenty of money to bribe the so called people smugglers which is an offence. Doubt they have been at sea very long.

    1. “Healthy & well dressed”?? I am intrigued as to whether you are looking at the same photographs I am seeing…

  5. Just wondering how these asylum seekers find the money to pay the smugglers to take them to Australia or some other country to seek refuge. From what i read, it costs about $10,000 to secure a spot in a smuggler’s boat, it may not be a lot but its a hefty sum to most countries where these asylum seekers are from. Why not go through the proper channels instead of jumping on a boat and risking their children’s lives, I would understand the plight of those in Syria, Iraq and those from other war-torn countries but how about the rest? Is jumping the boat the only answer? And I am talking about the current situation and not the St Louis boat incident that happened ages ago. The world should also look at the countries where these people are from, UN and other developed nations should put pressure to its government to do whats right for its people, call them out for corruption and old ways.

    1. How do you know what money changes hands and how much it costs? I highly doubt that the “proper channels” you imagine exist in Myanmar, where these people are persecuted. Do you suppose they can just stroll into an immigration office and request to leave? And you say you’d understand it if the people were from Syria or Iraq, but outright war is far from the only cause of persecution. Delusional bigotry at play is all I see here.

    2. Liv, I’m not sure how you could not be familiar with the response to this query as it has been asked many times and answered as well. Asylum seekers are not necessarily poor and they also cobble the money together from relatives and friends.

      ‘Proper channels’ – seeking asylum through escaping persecution by any method available is not only a proper channel by UN definition (cf Refugee Convention) but sometimes it’s the *only* channel.

      Perhaps because Australians have not been in such precarious situations for a very long time now, so many don’t understand what it is like to be afraid of that knock on the door and how there isn’t this nice orderly queue you get at the Passport Office, Medicare and Centrelink aka:

      Please press to get a queue number:

      * Escaping death, torture and life imprisonment, press A
      * Economic refugee, press B
      * Muslim terrorist on the hunt for new targets, press C.

      Queue jumpers and illegals – all this language designed around this strange idea that escaping persecution can be orderly and mandated through official process – when often it’s those very state agencies that are part of the problem.

      1. Omg yes, Aussies have resided too long in the ‘burbs! We are so complacent, no, we need to stop being so parochial and realise there are desperate people in the world, and being ‘the lucky country’ it is our responsibility to help these poor and desperate souls as best we possibly can!

  6. Australia now faces its own Mediterranean crisis as thousands of Rohingya people are dying of starvation and thirst on un-seaworthy boats in our region. Thailand, Malaysia are pushing them back out to sea and now Indonesia is threatening to do the same although the people of Aceh have allowed some to land.

    There is an emergency solution to this crisis. Instead of wringing our hands and doing nothing, Australia has detention camps on standby on Christmas Island which are set up with medical and basic facilities. There are three sites of different standards with water and toilets and dining room facilities, playgrounds in one for families. The camps are currently practically empty. At short notice staff can be flown in to care for the people. These detention centres could become Humanitarian Refugee camps to provide emergency sanctuary to the Rohingya people while political solutions are negotiated. In the past we have had thousands of people in the camps.

    Australia could fly the refugees from Banda Aceh airport directly to Christmas Island airport and then care for them as we have done when the boats arrived with hundreds of asylum seekers until recently. We have all the infrastructure in place because of our awful refugee policies. Australia is uniquely placed in the region because of the way in which we have locked up thousands of people in camps. Now we could use this infrastructure for good to stop a genocide and save lives.
    We need the world to point the finger at our government and tell it to JUST DO IT.

  7. When it comes to racism and bigotry Australia has already been an example for other counties in the past. South Africa did use the laws of Western Australia as an example when coming up with Apartheid… Bet a lot of people don’t know that.

    1. Hi Nadine…can you provide a link for your assertion re WA laws as a reference point for apartheid SA? I have tried to Google it without any luck.

      No doubt the WA laws are related to the shocking treatment of Aboriginal peoples

      Thoroughly disgusted with Abbott and this government they will destroy anyone who gets in the way of complete power

      When will we ever learn?

  8. Those who have the abiliy to help should divide these refugees up and take as much as they can instead of denying these people the chance to live. Shame on Myanmar. One country can’t take all of the refugees alone, it will have a tremeduous economic impact plus it would take a huge amount of resources to help these people.

  9. Excellent and moving piece, Jeff. I am also comparing in my mind the contrast now with the Vietnamese boat people exodus in late 70s. It took a long time then for the world to move to help these.victims of piracy and starvation at sea. In the end, some decency prevailed at last with rich Western countries like Australia paying for safe decent on-shore long term temporary camps in Malaysia and Thailand and Indonesia, while permanent resettlement (for some) was negotiated. And they had been our allies in war! How much less hope there is now of a similarly generous international and regional response to the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Burma. They really seem to be the world’s forsaken people. I am so disgusted with the Abbott government’s cruel, worse than indifferent, attitude.

  10. Very well written piece, I had very similar thoughts myself. It recall’s Foucault’s technological boomerang – the tactics which are developed overseas reflecting upon their home countries. In this case it’s more Australia just giving Europe advice in how to be horrible, but tragically we’re seeing very similar tactics.

  11. The fact that Johnny Depp’s illegal dog importation gains more mainstream news exposure than 8000 people stranded at sea in the Straits of Malacca is reflective of the type of society Australia has become.
    Celebrity obsession is a good way to avoid thinking about issues that matter such as the treatment of refugees. Indeed, back in 2001 the Howard federal government supported by Labor under Beazley refused the entry of the Tampa into Australia with its 438 rescued refugees. This action now serves as an example to other nations such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia of how to treat people seeking asylum. Following Australia’s lead other nations in our region, can refuse entry to refugees and even turn them back out to sea. I predict it’s a matter of time and European nations such as Italy may be doing the same and enjoying political support for such actions, like in Australia. The UN refugee agency has reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people. Desperate people do desperate acts such as leaving their home and seeking asylum in other countries. The reasons for this include historical, political, religious and economic factors.
    I doubt anyone wants to be a refugee. Countries like Australia should be looking at ways to bring refugees into our society. Particularly those at most risk of harm in our region. However, with Abbott as PM and Shorten as opposition leader and the majority of Australian people supporting the present refugee policies, the chances of a turnaround to a more humane approach are remote at best.
    Like 20,000 other Australians I signed onto the petition that helped Johnny Depp to fly his dogs safely home. I’ll sleep well tonight.

  12. Great piece Jeff! It made me think of an article i read yonks ago by Azadeh Dastyari called Refugees on Guantanamo Bay: a Blueprint for Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’?

    It made me think about the way Guantanamo progressed to being a prison for terror suspects and how the inmates couldn’t get access to US law because it was outside the jurisdiction (but still under US control). Possibly a correlation here with the offshore detention which places asylum seekers outside Ausralian law, in the sense they have no access to merits review by our courts? I’m guessing so i could be wrong. Her article is interesting though.

  13. the fact that the Philipines has decided to help these boat people may shame Australians into rethinking their stance on refugees. I doubt it as Australians have never had to flee their country excepting Aboriginal Australians who understand full well what it is like to be persecuted in your own country. One day we may be in the same predicament and we will wish we had shown more compassion. Don’t forget also that Australia refused to take Jewish refugees in the 1930’s so this is not a new occurrence in our history.

  14. The point of history is to learn from it and not make the same mistakes in the future. It is the mechanism for social advancement. Ignoring it, and repeating the same mistakes, is one of the first signs of a failed/incompetent administration. I will never understand how/why we in Australia are allowing our government to do this. I am today ashamed and disgusted to be an Australian – and I NEVER thought I’d ever say that. Thanks Tony Abbott, you’ve destroyed the Australia I grew up in… You are an evil bastard!

  15. Yep history repeats and the story of the St. Louis is a repitition of the story of the ship “The Afghan” which was full of Chinese immigrants that was turned away from Sydney thuis giving birth to the white Australia policy… I’m old enough to say I’ve been around the block a few times and I have seen and heard the same rhetoric through different waves of immigration. If there is one thing Aussies are really good at that’s being scared of what they refuse to understand.

  16. Liv – as others have said (and history showed most glaringly during the Holocaust) refugees fleeing persecution, torture, casual murder and the loss of their civil rights and employment are not necessarily poor! They sell everything they have, and abandon their homes, in order to get what matters more – freedom and safety.

  17. Yet, here we are, seventy-six years later, with boatloads of desperate people bounced from harbour to harbour by governments unwilling to take responsibility for someone else’s suffering.
    If you want evidence for how thoroughly the norms established after the Holocaust have been trashed… (etc)

    It’s so easy. We don’t stop the boats. We just open the borders at the Top End and let them all in. At last count the UNHCR said there were only about 50 million genuine refugees and displaced people out there. And it doesn’t cost much to ‘process’ them: only about $750,000 per head.
    That is the trouble that no refugee advocates want to address. Admit one, and word goes back up the line and starts maybe 10 on their way; as Gillard found towards the end of her time in office.
    Jeff Sparrow may tweet all he likes, but there is no easy humanitarian solution to this. It is a world problem, and the world is mostly not interested.
    The wars in Islamic civilisation generate refugees by the million. That’s most of the problem. Oops! Islamophobia! Politically incorrect! (And cue whataboutery.)
    Disregard that last bit please.

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