Want a long-range heads-up? The question we should be asking Abbott and Gillard and all of their various immigration spokespeople right now is this:
How do you feel about the inevitability that – possibly in your lifetime – a future Prime Minister of Australia will stand up in Parliament to make a heartfelt apology on behalf of the Australian people; an apology for you, for what you did, for who you were and for what you stood for?
Possibly in your lifetime. Certainly in the lifetimes of your children and grandchildren, your nieces and nephews and their children, so that they can share your shame and hate you for the shame you spill on them.
Many others, and their children and grandchildren, will share the stain of complicity, or of not speaking up against you and your hideous policies.
74 years ago another terrible, vile event occurred. A boat full of refugees left the country they grew up in, fleeing from the persecution and horrors of their homeland and seeking refuge in a safe and welcoming country. They were Jews – 937 of them – escaping from Germany. The ship was the MS St. Louis. The year was 1939.
They tried to land in Cuba, Canada and the United States. Each of these countries refused them entry by various means including creating retroactive laws, tightening existing ones, or bureaucratically reinterpreting existing ones, requiring unpayable financial bonds, or invalidating valid entry permits and denying the right to seek political asylum. All of this might have a familiar stench to you.
The United States Coast Guard, the ship’s non-Jewish German Captain Gustav Schröder said, forced him to turn the ship back when he tried to land in Florida. Perhaps this rings a bell for you.
Hypocrisy runs deep in all societies but no deeper than the United States in this case.
Inside the Statue of Liberty since 1903 there has been a bronze plaque, a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883.
“From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome” it says.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Of course there was much breast-beating understanding and public displays of sympathy on the part of all the countries, who met to find a solution that could see the 937 refugees settled safely. Just not in the USA, Canada or Cuba thank you. But anywhere else.
Eventually the ship was forced to return to Europe. Many were accepted by the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. As you know, Europe was at war and only the UK was not overrun and occupied by the Germans. It is estimated that 254 of the 937 were slain, mostly in Auschwitz and Sobibór and that of the 620 refugees who returned to the Continent only 365 survived the war.
So apart from the human legacy what is the political legacy of this “harsh, pragmatic, no advantage”, hypocritical, boat-discouraging immigration policy 74 years ago towards desperate people fleeing the horrors of their home countries?
After the war, Captain Gustav Schröder was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1993, Schröder was posthumously named as one of the Righteous among the Nations at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.
A display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of the voyage of the MS St. Louis.
In 2009, a special exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia explored the Canadian connection to the tragic voyage. The display is now a traveling exhibit in Canada.
In 2011, a memorial monument called the Wheel of Conscience, was unveiled at Pier 21, Canada’s national immigration museum in Halifax. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind. The memorial is of a polished stainless steel wheel. Symbolizing the policies that turned away more than 900 Jewish refugees, the wheel incorporates four inter-meshing gears each bearing a word: antisemitism, xenophobia, racism and hatred. The back of the memorial is inscribed with the names of the 937 passengers.
On 24 September last year US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns made a speech.
We who did not live it can never understand the experience of those 937 Jews who boarded the M.S. Saint Louis in the spring of 1939. Behind them, shattered windows and lives, loved ones in danger, crimes already underway and those crimes to come. Ahead, the hope of a new life in this country.
We all know how this journey ends. The ship was turned away. Its passengers returned to a Europe that fell, country by country, to the cruelty they set sail to escape. Having made it so close to the safety of our shores, nearly one-third of the men, women and children of the M.S. Saint Louis perished, half a world away, in Auschwitz and other camps.
[T]he dangers were visible to those clear-eyed enough to see them. The warnings were already clear for those who cared to listen … And yet the United States did not welcome these tired, poor and huddled passengers as we had so many before and would so many since. Our government did not live up to its ideals. We were wrong. And so we made a commitment that the next time the world confronts us with another M.S. Saint Louis — whether the warning signs are refugees in flight or ancient hatreds resurfacing — we will have learned the lessons of the M.S. Saint Louis and be ready to rise to the occasion.
[A]nti-Semitism, genocide and mass displacement are – sadly – all-too-alive in 2012 … there are other M.S. Saint Louises setting sail right now … there is always more we can and must do.
Or in other words, “Sorry”.
So Sir Roger offers these notes for the future Prime Minister who will – inevitably – say “Sorry” to all those who have sought to come to Australia seeking asylum in boats – legally – as refugees and discovered that the story that we were a warm and welcoming people was a cruel hoax.
Many years ago our country was called upon to stand for the values we cherished as Australians.
When people who had lost everything, their homes, their livelihoods, their hopes and their futures came to us;
when people full of terror who had seen, and often experienced, unimaginable horrors, or torture, came to us;
when people who were so desperate that they risked death in leaky boats and violent seas came to asking for our help ..
we were called upon as never before to show that we were indeed, and in our deeds, truly the people our story told about us; a people of humanity, hospitality and generosity, an understanding and tolerant people immensely proud of our multicultural triumph.
We failed. We proved that the story was a lie.
Our leaders failed us. Our institutions failed us. Our hearts failed us.
Instead, when we saw fellow human beings who so sincerely and transparently needed our help, people who had fled for their lives from wars, religious and tribal violence, and brutal tyrannical regimes, we told ourselves that those people were in fact queue-jumping, disease-ridden, child murdering terrorists and criminals who wanted to rape our women and steal the mineral wealth beneath our feet and the coins from our purse.
So to all those refugees we heartlessly turned away, or who we inhumanely imprisoned to the point where many of you went mad – and to those who never reached our shores but perished in the attempt – we say:
What we did as a people was based on greed, fear, narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, racism, hatred and ignorance.
As a people we say:
What our leaders did was not based on any of these things. It was based on the desire for power, on the desire to defeat an internal opponent in our own country. You were merely the tool that they used. To achieve their narrow partisan goals they broke international laws and our own laws. They ignored international conventions and treaties.
What those leaders did, along with those in our bureaucracies and agencies who conspired with them and abetted them, was unforgivable, unconscionable and inhumane and it disgraced and dishonoured our country. Their punishment is that their names and their reputations will be stained forever in the history of our country.
As we allowed them the opportunity to do what they did we say:
As you know, today’s Australia is not that Australia. We have learnt from that dark time. Our laws now ensure that it will not happen again. Our country truly is today, and thanks to so many of you, a people of humanity, hospitality and generosity, an understanding and tolerant people immensely proud of our multicultural triumph. We are once again true to our story and our values.
Thank you again.
I am so proud to be the Prime Minister of such a country, especially in the knowledge that we will never see such malignant, repugnant people assume leadership again.
Posted: 10 June, 2013 in Aussie Citizenship, Australian Politics, Australian Values, Culture, Immigration, Iran, Iraq, legal, Life, politics and government, Racism, Religion, values.
Tags: Abbott, Apology, asylum, asylum seeker, australia, Australian culture, Australian Politics, Australian Values, boat people, Culture, fear, Gillard, greed, hatred, Immigration, political values, politics, Racism, refugee, sorry, values, xenophobia