Jeff Sparrow, author of Killing: Misadventures in violence, outlines the ugly parallels between the refugee crisis unfolding in the waters to Australia’s north, and the treatment of Jewish refugees by the West at the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. This article first published at Overland Literary Journal.


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 8,000 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 Organization 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 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, 76 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.

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”.

But the editorialist at 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 signalling 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, at 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 is the former editor of Overland. His other works include Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within (both co-authored with Jill Sparrow), Left Turn: Essays for the New Left (co-edited with Antony Loewenstein), Communism: a love story and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn. Twitter: @Jeff_Sparrow.]