From the 2013 Syrian Refugee Conference to the 1938 Conference of Evian: How far have we come?

Published 27 November 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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By: Franck Düvell, Senior Researcher

The suffering and dying of Syrian and other Refugees on the outskirts of Europe and which lessons could be learned from the failure of the international community to rescue the European Jews?[1]
- ‘The British delegate claimed that Britain was already fully populated and suffering from unemployment, so it could take in no refugees’ (1938, at the Evian Jewish refugee conference).

Currently, two related and partly overlapping major human tragedies are unfolding under the eyes of the European and international community.

First, the civil war in Syria which started 2 1/2 years ago has so far claimed the lives of at least 115,000 people including 6,000 children (Reuters Oct. 2013), while 2,202,439 refugees have sought protection in neighbouring countries (UNHCR 2013).

coast guard during stormSecond, since 1988 around 20,000 migrants and refugees who were denied opportunities for legal entry to the EU have died whilst trying to reach the perceived safe territories of the European Union (del Grande 2013). So far in 2013, 695 persons have died; on just one day, the 3rd of October, 339 mostly Eritrean refugees lost their lives in a boat accident off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy. One week later, another 160 were feared dead as their boat sank off the coast of Sicily (ibid.).

In total, from 2009 to 2012 422,147 migrants and refugees, an average of 105,000 each year, have irregularly reached the European Union (Frontex 2013). In 2012, around 18,000 or 25% took one of the hazardous sea routes: from Libya or Tunisia to Italy and Malta; or from Turkey to Greece and Italy. In total, probably 1,200,000 migrants and refugees including the 513,000 Syrians in Turkey currently stay in an EU or neighbouring country (excluding Russia).

Most EU neighbour countries either lack the capacity or are unwilling to protect refugees. In particular Libya and Morocco are inhospitable for most migrants and refugees. Ukraine is also considered unsafe for refugees and other vulnerable migrants, whilst Turkey places a geographic limitation on refugees from non-European countries. These migrants are not permitted to stay permanently but must be resettled in other safe countries, so far mostly the US. (For an overview over the conditions of refugees in the EU neighbourhood countries see Düvell 2013.)

Nevertheless, a certain number of migrants and refugees are desperate or committed enough to try to reach EU territory by any means necessary. It is the responsibility of the EU to develop a response is in line with its values.

At the beginning of October 2013 the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE group) called for a ‘humanitarian conference on the Syrian refugee crisis’ (ALDE 2013). They argue that 'the attitude of the international community to the tragedy taking place in Syria is a disgrace' and that they 'cannot accept that Europe remains largely closed' thereby implying that the EU should provide protection and thus admit Syrian refugees.

In addition, the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) proposed that “the EU and its member states should guarantee Syrian refugees safe entry to the EU” (European Parliament 2013a). With respect to the suffering and dying of other refugees and vulnerable migrants responses so far have been much less determined.

When EU president Barroso and EU commissioner Malmström visited Lampedusa on 9 October they remained rather vague. They accepted that the death of 339 mostly Eritrean refugees was a ‘tragedy’ that ‘saddened’ them, they acknowledged despair and hope on the side of the migrants and refugees. But all they concluded was to ‘strengthen our capacity for search and rescue’ while at the same time stating that they must ‘reinforce our joint action against criminals and people smugglers’ (Barroso, European Commission 2013 ). This means nothing but fighting the structures that offer (irregular) services to those migrants and refugees who try to escape their fate. Malmström at least went a little further and promoted ‘open[ing] more channels for regular migration’ and ‘resettle[ing] people in need of asylum and international protection’ (European Commission 2013).

At the end of October, the Council of the European Union summit of the heads of governments failed to agree a solution to the ongoing migration and refugee crisis. It was only ‘addressed rhetorically, but little was achieved substantively’ (Der Spiegel, 27/10/13).
The ‘council expressed its deep sadness at the recent tragic events in the Mediterranean ... and decided to step up the Union's action so as to prevent such tragedies from happening again’ (CoEU 2013). In the subsequent council conclusions four of 49 paragraphs are devoted to ‘action[s]’ that ‘should [but not must] be taken in order to prevent the loss of lives at sea and to avoid such human tragedies’; these were spelled out as prioritising ‘an effective return policy, ...the fight against trafficking and smuggling of human beings, ...reinforcement of Frontex activities in the Mediterranean and along the Southeastern borders of the EU, ...detecting vessels and illegal entries’. The council decided to further delay discussion of what should be sustainable solutions until June 2014.

There is no immediate relation between the claim ‘to avoid such human tragedies’ and the policy targets for an ‘effective return policy’ (how is that going to prevent loss of life at sea?), fighting [human] smuggling (how is that preventing the actual suffering in sending and transit countries?) or detecting illegal vessels and entries (which aim at preventing the arrival of unwanted immigrants and refugees in the EU rather than preventing human tragedy, particularly if these occur in the country of origin) (Medicins sans Frontieres 2013).

In the meantime, the European Parliament (2013b) also approved EUROSUR, a comprehensive European migration surveillance system aiming at ‘prevent[ing], detect[ing] and combat[ing] irregular migration’ (a synonym for refugee and other unwanted flows). Only at the last minute did the parliament include some reference to ‘save[ing] migrants' lives’, though it remains to be seen how these two aims will be balanced. The language implies that those recued at sea might be turned back to where they came from rather than be offered protection in the EU. Indeed, on the agenda is an amendment of the Frontex mandate permitting the agency to return back to the point of departure those migrants and refugees rescued in international waters, thus preventing them from making a claim for asylum in the EU.

Simultaneously, however, it was decided to set up a European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), to send 111 officers and €30 million to Libya to support the national authorities in enhancing border controls (EUObserver 2013). Italy has also reached an agreement with Libya to support its maritime borders and prevent migrants and refugees from departing from its shores (Il Manifesto 2013).

So whilst rhetorically certain EU representatives shed some tears over the recent death toll and called for a humanitarian response, the actual EU bureaucracy, its agencies and its member states continue with business as usual, which is to consider dealing with migration as a battle (‘combating’ or ‘fighting illegal migration’ are the terms most often used) and focus on further enhancing borders protection to prevent the arrival of unwanted flows of migrants, refugees and other people in need of international protection.

The war in Syria is now in its third year, but the dying of refugees, often from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea or Mali, and other vulnerable migrants in the Mediterranean dates back to 1988 and has thus now been happening for over 15 years. Approximately 20,000 people have lost their lives whilst hundreds of thousands are stranded in countries that provide little or no protection to people in need. The failure so far of the European and international community to offer timely and effective protection to refugees and other vulnerable migrants calls to memory the failure of the international community to rescue the European Jews from the Nazis holocaust, notably in the 1938 Evian conference and the 1943 Bermuda Conference.

To recall briefly, from 6-15 July 1938, an international refugee conference was held in Evian, France to discuss the fate of Jewish refugees in Europe, attended by representatives of 32 countries: the western Allies including the US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, various Latin America and some European countries. By that time 150,000 Jews had already fled Germany, but 450,000 were still stuck in Germany and another 185,000 were brought under Nazi rule when they occupied Austria. Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter (US Holocaust Memorial Museum).

'During the conference, it became painfully obvious that no country was willing to volunteer anything'; instead the arguments made were ' a time when there is serious unemployment, ...countries of refuge and settlement are faced with problems, not only of an economic and social nature, but also of public order, and that there is a severe strain on the administrative facilities and absorptive capacities of the receiving countries' (Jewish Virtual Library).

'The British delegate claimed that Britain was already fully populated and suffering from unemployment, so it could take in no refugees. [they even declared Jewish migration to the Palestinian territories ‘illegal’ and tightened its controls]... The French delegate declared that France had reached ‘the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees' (Yad Vashem ).

No country except the Dominican Republic admitted Jewish refugees or expanded its quota for European migrants; rather the opposite. The consequences are known: in November 1938 the Nazis initiated the Reichskristallnacht, in 1939 after occupying Poland they began deporting Jews there and from 1941 the ‘Final Solution’ was enforced.

The Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees (IGC) set up as a result of the conference, in some way a predecessor of some of today’s international migration organisations, also failed to change the tide (see Weingarten 1981)[2].

From 19 - 29 April 1943, five years later and well into the Holocaust, another bilateral refugee conference was held, this time in Bermuda but only involving the US and the UK (see Culbertson 1994). Tabled was the suggestion to resettle Jewish refugees from neutral countries, thereby encouraging these to accept more refugees from Nazi-occupied territories. But not even the Warsaw ghetto uprising which saw the deaths of many Jews, and coincided with the conference, could convince the governments to take any meaningful action. In 1943, after 12 days of negotiations no decision was made to come to the rescue of the European Jews. In the end six million Jews and millions of Roma, political activists and homosexuals were killed.

The main lesson learned from Nazi ruling, World War II, the Holocaust and the failure to rescue European Jews has been ‘Never Again!’ But is this still remembered? These days, refugee resettlement from Libya, Tunisia, Jordan or Turkey is on the agenda, but with the exception of Germany and a few other countries (see British Refugee Council 2013) (but not the UK), few have subscribed to this. Unfortunately, even those who take refugees only do so small numbers. Only 10,000 have been resettled - ‘a drop in the ocean’ (Reuters 2013). This continues despite the recent deaths of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean. A European or international solution is not in sight.

Some of the arguments made in the 1930s and 1940s (overpopulation, unemployment, public order) very much resemble the arguments made these days (security or strains on administrative facilities) explaining why these people can’t be admitted to the EU. It seems that the political and diplomatic mechanisms and excuses made today are very similar to those made in the 1930s and 1940s and that the lessons from the failure of the 1938 and 1943 refugee conferences have not actually been learned.

[1] November is a month of remembrance, one of the relevant dates is the 9th November, the Kristall- or Reichspogromnacht and the first step towards the Holocaust. The lessons learned are that then democracy failed to stop the rise of the Nazis, that  the western democracies failed to stop its expansion before it was too late, and that they failed to intervene on behalf of Jews and other persecuted groups. The lessons to be learned are moral imperatives (notably ‘never again’, ‘the right to have rights’), but also the methodologies developed by scholars like Arendt, Weingarten and Goldhagen who analysed the functioning of law, bureaucracies, diplomacy and its individual actors in this context.

[2] It should be noted however, that Jewish and other refugees who managed to escape to Spain and Portugal, then both under dictatorship ruling, were relatively safe there; also after the Reichskristallnacht the UK accepted the famous Kindertransporte and thus offered protection to 9-10,000 mostly Jewish minors.