On 13 May 1939, 937 German Jews boarded a cruise liner, the SS St Louis, in a desperate bid to escape Nazi Germany. They had visas to enter Cuba, and from there hoped to gain entry to the US. When they arrived in Cuba 14 days later those hopes were dashed. The Cuban authorities refused them entry. For seven days the captain tried to convince the Cuban authorities to change their minds, but they would not.
So the St Louis set out for Florida, only to be refused entry to the US. Everyone was aware of their plight in Germany, but it seems people were afraid of the risk of opening up a floodgate of refugees.
There was nowhere to go but back to Europe. 298 passengers went to Great Britain; 191 to the Netherlands; 214 to Belgium; and 224 to France. As a number of these countries were overrun by the Nazis many of the passengers of the St Louis found themselves locked up in concentration camps where 254 of them died.
After the war it was the memory of high-profile cases such as this that helped create the determination to do better, and so the Refugee Convention was born. It would guarantee the case of the St Louis would never be repeated, that those fleeing persecution would always find somewhere to go.
Yet 50 years on from the ratification of the Convention we are seeing history repeat itself. Australia became the first industrialised nation to turn boats around, and it seems that others are now looking to follow suit. We like to tell ourselves that Australia is only a nation of a small population and not significant on the world stage. But our treatment of asylum seekers has been noted, and as others follow our lead the international protection system will collapse.
This past week we have seen boatloads of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma hoping to find refuge in a neighbouring state. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have refused them entry, and standing by applauding this has been our Prime Minister who manages to completely invert the meaning of words when he declares that it is the only compassionate thing to do. As a result thousands of people are stuck on boats with no water, no food, and no hope.
News today is that Malaysia and Indonesia might agree to take the refugees if the international community guarantees to find them places to resettle. As one of the most affluent nations on the planet, one might have thought Australia would put up our hands to be part of this.
In hindsight the actions of Cuba and the United States towards the refugees on the St Louis were unforgivable. Sheer coldhearted bastardry. In years to come the same will be said of our treatment of asylum seekers.