Today in the news it has been revealed that the family of the three year old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey earlier this week was trying to reach Canada, in spite of the fact their application for asylum had been rejected. Aylan Kurdi (3), Galip Kurdi (5), and their mother Rehan Kurdi are the latest in a disturbingly long list of tragedies. According to a report from the United Nations, an estimated “2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing this year while attempting the crossing to Europe.”
These are powerful news stories and it is important that those of us fortunate enough to live in secure countries encourage our governments to assist refugees, but they are news–not history. Nevertheless they deserve a place on the History Collective, and it is no mere coincidence that we have chosen September 3 to broach the topic.
On Sunday September 3, 1939, Neville Chamberlain addressed the British public to announce that they were at war with Germany. The entire radio broadcast can be heard in this video.
Chamberlain’s announcement most certainly deserves attention on the History Collective, but there is another story that, regrettably, concerns both the Second World War and Canada’s treatment of refugees in crisis.
On June 7, 1939, the M.S. St. Louis was 2 days away from Halifax Harbour when it was turned away from Canada–refusing entry to the 907 Jewish refugees aboard. The decision to refuse entry to these refugees reflected the views of the director of Canada’s Immigration Branch. When asked how many Jewish refugees should be allowed into Canada, he famously replied “none is too many.” When the passengers on M.S. St. Louis asked for asylum, he reiterated this opinion by claiming that they did not qualify for immigration and that “Canada had already done too much for the Jews.” (Irving Abella, None is Too Many, p. 64).
Since then Canada has become home to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants and has developed a strong multicultural society, but the current migration crisis–which is the highest immigration rate since WWII–is drawing Canada’s welcoming status into question. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next three years, but the government’s slow processing of applications has raised questions of whether or not that is enough.
On September 3, 1939, just 45 minutes after Chamberlain’s address, my grandfather (a WWI veteran) wrote a letter to my grandmother. In closing he stated “my fervent hope is that this horrible mess stays away from you and that my little chaps [my father and uncle, aged 2] know nothing of this madness and can grow up in a world of sanity where people won’t cheer a war but will remove anyone who ever thinks of such a thing.”
I do not know what my grandfather would have thought of the current migration crisis, but I do believe he would be appalled to know we live in a world that is still so full of violence that hundreds of thousands of people are risking (and losing) their lives in an attempt to find a safe place to live.
Today’s crisis is vastly different than the one the world faced 76 years ago today, and thankfully Canada’s immigration policy is much better than it was then, but nevertheless it is still a crisis of horrific proportions and I believe we need to do what we can to assist refugees fleeing unthinkable situations.