our treatment of refugees is a yardstick by which future generations will judge us


D Berger
Any observer of today’s spiraling refugee crises in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia must agree with Hegel that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” At the Evian conference of 1938, the US encouraged representatives of 32 nations to find a solution to the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe but refused to relax its own, severely limited refugee quotas, as did Britain.1 2 The other participating nations followed suit, except the Dominican Republic, which agreed to take 100 000. In the summer of 1939, in the first act of a “stop the boats” doctrine that still plays out today, the St Louis, a German luxury liner carrying over 900 German Jewish refugees, was refused entry by Cuba, the US, and Canada and returned to Europe, where a large number of the would-be refugees were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust.3 This hypocrisy sent a clear message to Hitler that no one else cared about the Jews, or at least not enough to do anything, and he correctly concluded he was able to act with impunity.

Today’s failure of moral leadership by the Western democracies is spearheaded by the Australian government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and scrutinised both by other leading democracies and far less savoury regimes, which can only draw the conclusion that, “If Australia can disregard human rights and suffer no consequences, then so can we.” Australia’s policy is to turn back what it terms “illegal” refugee boats, full of “illegal” or “back door” arrivals and to subject those who do get through, including children, to indefinite detention in privately run centres on remote, impoverished Pacific Islands, territories of nations that are effectively financial vassal states of Australia. Here, at a cost of nearly $A900 000 (£450 000; €640 000; $700 000) a year for each detainee, over 3000 people are housed in appalling conditions, abused and maltreated and repeatedly informed they will never be allowed to settle in Australia.4 5 They are being made an example of, solely “pour décourager les autres.” Laws are being introduced that may give free rein to guards in private detention centres to beat asylum seekers to death for non-violent protest if they feel justified in doing so.6

In an act of perfidy worthy of a ruthless despot, not of the elected prime minister of one of the leading and wealthiest liberal Western democracies, Abbott claims this is a compassionate policy designed to prevent drowning at sea, to puncture the market in people smuggling, and—in a cynical play for Australian public opinion—to give everyone a “fair go” by preventing “queue jumping” by “back door” arrivals, even though there is no identifiable queue or front or back door, just many ordinary people fleeing for their lives.7 The government is spending a large amount of money on propaganda to publicise its policy and inform potential refugees that they will not make Australia home, “No Way.”8 Meanwhile, the true intent is revealed by the assertion that his government will not “succumb to the cries of human rights lawyers”9 and a shocking encouragement to Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia to continue to turn back boats full of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (Burma), one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, who are dying in the Andaman Sea. Abbott emphatically refuses—“Nope, nope, nope”—to entertain the idea of resettling any of them in Australia.10 In a painful irony, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry of Indonesia, which is not a signatory but was cornered into providing temporary shelter for Rohingya refugees by global public opinion, lambasted Australia: “You signed the UN Convention on Refugees. Act on it!”11

It would be less hypocritical of Abbott to admit Australia’s refugee policy is an extension of the historic White Australia policy by other means, to satisfy a conservative domestic agenda (would this position have been taken if the refugees were white, English speaking Christians?). And it would be arguably more humane to destroy the refugee boats at sea than to leave their occupants to die a lingering death from starvation, thirst, and exposure.6 12

Surely the West has reached a level of absurdity in this grotesque episode from which it can only retrench. There must be statesmen and women in Western democracies who understand that there comes a time when moral leadership and global statesmanship must supplant a self interested, parochial political agenda. History ought to have taught us that stopping the boats and pretending nothing is happening does not make these problems go away. They only get worse and eventually blow up in violent and entirely predictable ways, as the deaths of millions during the second world war and subsequently attest.

The temporising must stop, from the refugee boats of the Mediterranean to those of the Andaman. The health and welfare of refugees is a test of our humanity, a test that we are failing once again. The Western democracies must send a clear, unified message, in actions as well as words, to the autocrats, despots, and warlords that persecution and genocide of minorities is no longer acceptable. If they continue to shirk their responsibilities to shelter the persecuted, then open season is declared once more on the vulnerable and dispossessed, just as it was when the St Louis was turned back 76 years ago. No one says this is going to be easy, but the alternative will be far worse.

History tells us so.

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2907

Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare DB is a non-executive director of BMJ. The BMJ board has no role in determining The BMJ’s editorial policy. DB’s grandfather, a Jewish doctor from Berlin, was refused entry to Britain in 1936 and his grandmother, who was separately refused entry, committed suicide. He is a recent immigrant to Australia.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

↵ US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Evian conference. http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007698.
↵ Mondale WF. Evian and Geneva. New York Times 1979 Jul 28:17.
↵ Miller S, Ogilvie SA. Refuge denied: the St Louis passengers and the holocaust. University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
↵ Evershed N. Mandatory immigration detention is a billion-dollar business—analysis, Guardian 2014 Aug 25. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/aug/25/-sp-mandatory-immigration-detention-is-a-billion-dollar-business-analysis.
↵ Ackland R. Scott Morrison thumbs his nose at Indonesia, and sets back the only humane solution for refugees. Guardian 2014 Nov 9. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/19/scott-morrison-thumbs-his-nose-at-indonesia-and-sets-back-the-only-humane-solution-for-refugees.
↵ Appleby G. Australia’s rigid immigration barrier. New York Times 2015 May 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/08/opinion/australias-rigid-immigration-barrier.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1.
↵ Radulova L. “Stopping the boats is compassionate,” claims Tony Abbott as protestors clash with his security team over refugee turnback policy. Daily Mail 2014 Jul 12. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2689555/Stopping-boats-compassionate-Abbott.html.
↵ Laughland O. Australian government targets asylum seekers with graphic campaign. Guardian 2014 Feb 11. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/11/government-launches-new-graphic-campaign-to-deter-asylum-seekers.
↵ Madhora S, Safi M. Tony Abbott declares only the coalition strong enough to stop the boats. Guardian 2015 Apr 9. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/09/tony-abbott-declares-only-the-coalition-strong-enough-to-stop-the-boats.
↵ Cox L. “Nope, nope, nope”: Tony Abbott says Australia will not resettle refugees in migrant crisis. Sydney Morning Herald 2015 May 21. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/nope-nope-nope-tony-abbott-says-australia-will-not-resettle-refugees-in-migrant-crisis-20150521-gh6eew.html.
↵ Topsfield J. Indonesia to Australia: “You signed the UN Convention on Refugees. Act on it.” Sydney Morning Herald 2015 May 21. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/indonesia-to-australia-you-signed-the-un-convention-on-refugees-act-on-it-20150521-gh6u58.html.
↵ Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Fact sheet 8. Abolition of the White Australia policy. http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/08abolition.htm.