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It's All History by Jon Malek

Learning from the past:

History as a warning for today

By Jon Malek

The Philippines made the news in late May as being the first country in the region willing to grant refuge to asylum seekers stranded in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Melaka. The asylum seekers are fleeing religious persecution in Burma (Myanmar) and poverty in Bangladesh. The Philippines, which signed the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951) in 1981, raised the hopes of advocates as the nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – none of which are signatories to the Convention of Refugees – had refused to take in the boatloads of people, despite warnings from the UN of “floating coffins.”

This isn’t the first time that the Philippines has stepped up on the international stage. From the 1970s to 1990s, the Philippines opened its borders to Vietnamese “Boat People” who fled their war-torn country while Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand turned the asylum seekers away. The Philippines announced their willingness to accept refugees on May 19th, and by May 21st Indonesia and Malaysia indicated they would do to same, following the lead of the Philippines.

The refugees at the heart of this humanitarian crisis are an ethnic group known as the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma. For decades, this group has experienced discrimination from radical Buddhists sects, and they have minimal rights as the government considers the Rohingya as non-citizens, claiming they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Their story of suffering has largely been ignored in the international media. Their flight from Burma in rickety, unseaworthy ships is very similar to the situation in the Mediterranean Sea, as migrants fleeing war, extremism and poverty attempt illegal entry to Europe. These migrants pay inordinate amounts of money to human traffickers who promise them safe passage. However, the boats they are loaded into are in bad condition and over filled with people. Indeed, the crisis currently unfolding with the Rohingya is a result of their ships being ill supplied to survive being turned away from Southeast Asian countries. Furthermore, sea travel is itself dangerous, and often times these ships full of refugees end up sinking; if they are lucky, they are spotted by coast guards, however, many are not. A survivor of a recent sinking in the Mediterranean said he thought at least three hundred had died, as they were locked in the ship’s hold and unable to escape as their ship sank.

Hein de Haas, a professor at the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, recently asked what do we actually learn from history. Today, the international community is having a hard time coming together to deal with humanitarian crises on the seas. While some, like the Philippines, are willing to help, many are resisting and need to be pressured to act. A very similar situation happened in the build up to the Second World War as Jewish refugees, forced out of Germany, sought asylum. One of Canada’s darkest moments in its immigration history was its denial of refuge to 915 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, which was also denied by the United States and Cuba. With no country willing to take them in, their ship turned around and returned to Germany, where it is believed all were killed in the Holocaust. It was events like this that led to the international community, in the form of the United Nations, to draft the Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951. The situation in Burma (Myanmar) is by no means the same as the Holocaust, but what is similar is international indifference to the suffering of the Rohingya, who are being targeted for their religion and ethnicity. Today, there are international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to advocate for peoples with no voice, but too often their pleas for help are ignored or brushed off. Before agreeing to assist in the crisis after the Philippines stepped up, the Indonesian government claimed that the crisis was a global crisis in which all states should assist, and that Indonesia had done its part.

Sometimes on the international stage, though, pleas for help from groups like the UNHCR and IOM are not enough – sometimes someone needs to step up to take a leadership position, and guide the international community. Canada gained international esteem in the 1970s as it opened its borders to thousands of Ugandan-Asians forced out by the military dictator Idi Amin. In that case, Canada greatly benefited, as this ethnic group was highly educated and had considerable wealth, meaning their settlement would be less of a burden to Canada. However, many refugees today are not in such a position and, instead of being viewed as victims of human rights violations in need of humanitarian assistance, they are often regarded as burdens to society. There are those who stand up for what is morally just, though. The Italian island city of Lampedusa, between Sicily and Tunisia, has received significant amounts of refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in North Africa. Countless tragedies have happened off its shores. When much of Europe turned a blind eye to the refugee crisis in 2012, Lampedusa took a stand. After receiving hundreds of refugees, the mayor of Lampedusa scolded the rest of Europe for neglecting their international responsibilities. In an open letter to the European community explaining how he had to bury eleven asylum seekers who had drowned, the mayor stated “I know there will be others that we will bury, but I have one question which I must address to everyone: just how large exactly does the cemetery on my island need to be?”

Even Pope Francis has taken on the issue of refugees. In a recent Lenten message, the Pope warned against what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” the ignorance of the poor and needy by those well off. Thus, Pope Francis is astutely aware of the situation surrounding refugees movements across the Mediterranean, stating that it is not a problem faced only by Italy or individual receiving countries, but that it affects the whole international community. “Migration movements,” he said, “are on such a scale that only a systematic and active cooperation between States and international organizations [like the UNHCR and IOM] can be capable of regulating and managing such movements effectively.” In his statement for the 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis stated,

“It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation, in such a way as to make the conditions of migrants more humane. At the same time, greater efforts are needed to guarantee the easing of conditions, often brought about by war or famine, which compel whole peoples to leave their native countries.

“Solidarity with migrants and refugees must be accompanied by the courage and creativity necessary to develop, on a world-wide level, a more just and equitable financial and economic order, as well as an increasing commitment to peace, the indispensable condition for all authentic progress.”

Pope Francis’ words reminds us that such issues are not to be seen only from an economic perspective, but from a position of humanitarianism. The world must constantly take a moment of pause to reflect on priorities, and to recognize the dire need that many refugees are in. The role of states like the Philippines or Italy, as well as leaders such as Pope Francis, remind us that, within the international order, there must be a strong sense of social justice, compassion, and concern for the people of the world. Organizations like the UNHCR and IOM also perform vital work. If you would like to donate and assist in these efforts, you can donate to the UNHCR here,, and the IOM here, For donations to the IOM, you are able to select which project your contribution will go to, such as Typhoon Haiyan response, or migrants in crisis.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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