On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, with 936 Jewish refugees on board seeking to flee Nazi Germany. They sailed to Cuba, yet it refused to take them in. The United States also refused to host them. At the end of a long journey through the Atlantic, the Jewish refugees were returned to Europe. Some of them were exterminated in the Holocaust.
The story of St. Louis shocked the world: How could it be that no state was willing to grant the refugees asylum in the face of mortal danger? Now, 73 years after the St. Louis affair, we are on the other side; the wealthy side. Poor, hungry Africans are arriving here in order to seek food and work.
They arrive from Eritrea, a poor dictatorship lacking freedom of press, where youngsters are enlisted for lifelong, mandatory military service. They arrive from the Islamist Sudan or from South Sudan, two warring states, without healthcare services and without hope. They arrive from Darfur, a war-stricken region maligned by genocide.
Eritrea’s per capita GNP is some $600 a year. That’s less than $2 a day. In Israel, the per capita GNP stands at roughly $30,000. For an Eritrean refugee, living on a southern Tel Aviv sidewalk constitutes economic improvement. They are seeking hope, quality of life and a reason to live. Most of them are good people willing to work hard and benefit the society that takes them in.
And what does Israel do? Forbids them from working. How do we expect them to eat? Buy clothes? At the end of the day, we are pushing them into a corner – that is, into the crime world.
It would be proper to prevent the arrival of more refugees by constructing an effective fence on the border or bribing the Bedouins in the Sinai so that they stop smuggling refugees into Israel. We have to plug our borders. However, the refugees who already crossed the border fence are here, and we are responsible for their fate. It would be inhumane to deport them. It’s also forbidden by international conventions ratified by Israel.
Instead of importing foreign workers, basic human morality requires us, as human beings, to take in the refugees and to provide them with basic living conditions.