According to U.N. figures, the current global levels of displacement have not been matched since World War II. In 2014, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and people forced to flee within their country surged to nearly 60 million people.
It's hard to grasp the scope of this in real terms -- a nation of the displaced -- but it's been hideously dramatized in recent news. Desperate refugees and migrants, at the mercy of smugglers and human traffickers, have been confronted by walls and soldiers, have drowned in the Mediterranean, and suffocated in the back of trucks.
Over the past year, many in Europe have bristled at the influx -- from far-right political movements and fear-mongering tabloids to established politicians and leaders. The resentment has to do, in part, with the burden of coping with the refugees. But it's also activated a good amount of latent xenophobia--leading to anti-Islam protests, attacks on asylum centers and a good deal of bigoted bluster.
Some governments in Eastern Europe have even specifically indicated they don't want to accommodate non-Christian refugees, out of supposed fear over the ability of Muslims to integrate into Western society.
"Refugees are fleeing fear," urged a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency last week. "Refugees are not to be feared."
It's important to recognize that this is hardly the first time the West has warily eyed masses of refugees. And while some characterize Muslim arrivals as a supposedly unique threat, the xenophobia of the present carries direct echoes of a very different moment: The years before World War II, when tens of thousands of German Jews were compelled to flee Nazi Germany.
Consider this 1938 article in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid still known for its bouts of right-wing populism. Its headline warned of "German Jews Pouring Into This Country." And it began as follows:
"The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest."In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalde, the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the 'back door' -- a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.The number of aliens entering this country can be seen by the number of prosecutions in recent months. It is very difficult for the alien to escape the increasing vigilance of the police and port authorities.Even if aliens manage to break through the defences, it is not long before they are caught and deported.
No matter the alarming rhetoric of Hitler's fascist state -- and the growing acts of violence against Jews and others -- popular sentiment in Western Europe and the United States was largely indifferent to the plight of German Jews.
"Of all the groups in the 20th century," write the authors of the 1999 book, "Refugees in the Age of Genocide," "refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as 'genuine', but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy."
Part of that hostility was fueled, as some of the European grievances are now, by stereotypes of the refugees as harbingers of a dangerous ideology, in this instance communism and anarchist violence.
There were also economic concerns. The world was coming off the Great Depression. In France alone, there were a million people unemployed. Resentment against French and foreign Jews (large numbers from Germany and Romania had arrived by the early 1930s) led to "a new wave of antisemitism," detailed by a report put out by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Chamber of Commerce of the city of Metz, for example, grumbled in 1933 that "highly undesirable" Jews "have become a veritable plague for honest French merchants." By 1935, the then French government enacted a series of quotas on certain professions -- effectively blocking Jews out. This was a precursor for the more pernicious and deadly forms of antisemitism to come.
In Britain, as a 2002 article in the Guardian recounts, perhaps as many as half a million German Jewish asylum seekers were turned away by authorities ahead of the outbreak of World War II. Many who were admitted in were given asylum less out of altruism than a need to fill low-paying domestic work "spurned by the native British." The situation was no better elsewhere:
Canada accommodated only 5,000 European Jews between 1933 and 1945, Australia 10,000, South Africa some 6,000. And the US's unyielding quota system meant that, between 1933 and 1937, only 33,000 German Jews were admitted (and only 124,000 between 1938 and 1941).
Meanwhile, those trapped within Nazi-controlled Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust. Millions were systematically killed. Yet it was only in 1944, when the extent of the genocide had become better known, that the United States made a real effort to rescue European Jews. Even during World War II, let alone before it started, antisemitism was rife in American political and public life.
Unwanted foreigners have always caused consternation among a section of any society. Thankfully, there's an equally vociferous chorus in Europe currently championing the plight of Syrian refugees, and urging others to help make a new home for those displaced by conflict and other hardships.
Everyone deserves the chance to live a better life, activists argue.
The Australian journalist Tom Gara, now an editor at Buzzfeed News, tweeted an account on Tuesday of his Hungarian Jewish grandfather's escape from his war-torn homeland in May 1940. After an arduous five-month journey, he arrived at the faraway port of Adelaide. One of his places of sanctuary along the way: Aleppo, Syria.
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