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In a Refugee Crisis, Consider the Past

In May of 1939, the transatlantic ocean liner the St. Louis departed from Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. On board were over 900 Jewish refugees, desperate to escape the building tensions and anti-Semitism that would lead to World War II later that year. However, the refugees faced xenophobia, anti-Semitism and nativism across the ocean. They were not permitted to disembark in Cuba, and instead headed for the United States in hope of finding refuge there. However, they were again turned away. Refugees called President Roosevelt, but he never responded. The ship returned to Europe. The consequences of America and Cuba’s apathy were fatal. After the refugees were brought back to Europe, 254 were murdered during the holocaust.

It’s easy to look back and assume that given the chance, we would never make the same mistakes as our ancestors. However, the reality is not so simple. Today’s refugees from the Middle East and Central America face the same anti-refugee attitudes prevalent during World War II. In a post-9/11 universe, a refugee is no longer just a refugee. Today’s migrants (especially those from Syria, Iraq, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) face suspicions that they are affiliated with terrorist organizations or criminal gangs, and this is all-the-more elevated by politicians. The refugee vetting process, while important for public safety, leaves many in administrative limbo. Growing numbers of child refugees complicate the narrative. Many are currently housed in temporary detention centers, far from home and their families.


On September 19, 2016 the United Nations will convene to address the ongoing crises during the Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The Summit’s goal is to coordinate and unify the response to migrant refugees across the globe. Round table topics will address the practical concerns of today’s receiving and sending nations. Panel titles are as complicated and diverse as the intractable situations they address; one example is “Global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration: towards realizing the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and achieving full respect for the human rights of migrants.” The Summit will serve as an important milestone in the struggle to preserve human rights during the refugee crises.


The New York Immigration Coalition believes in the human dignity of all refugees, migrants, and immigrants. To support our mission to provide a unified voice and vehicle for collective action, we will be engaging in a social media campaign during the U.N.’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants. We invite you to join us! During the summit, we will be live-tweeting the event using the hashtags #Right2Thrive and #RefugeesWelcome. #Right2Thrive, developed by the NYIC, reaffirms the humanity of all displaced people and our innate human right to life. #RefugeesWelcome celebrates refugees, wherever they come from. The NYIC knows that refugees are a source of economic revitalization in their new communities, and that the diverse skillsets of refugees can and should be utilized.


Let us learn from the past! We do not have to return to the xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments of World War II to protect national security and address refugees. A judicious combination of security and welcoming will ensure the human dignity of all!


Photos, from top to bottom: Children arriving at Ellis Island; An Ellis Island medical inspection; modern refugees.


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