After Genesis, Exodus


Not the Book of Exodus; but the ship pictured in this photo. Childhood emotions from the 1960 film are seared into my soul. It the story of Jewish refugees desperate to emigrate to Palestine but who are sent back to German DP camps by the British.

I research the 1930s Jewish refugee crisis year after year, as part of my epical novel that refuses to be written. And, in my mind, the Exodus story from my childhood merges with the story of the MS St. Louis, often used as the worst example of the pre-war attitude towards refugees. Dark clouds descend upon the Jews of Europe, yet other countries – United States, France, Canada, Switzerland – each erect their own style of barrier.*

The St. Louis refugees are refused entry to Cuba, so, for three days, the  St. Louis tries to pass into American waters, but is blocked each time by the American Coast Guard. Eventually the would-be immigrants are back in Europe where a quarter of the ship’s complement eventually perish in the Holocaust.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, there is a major shift in thinking about refugees. You can view the rights of a refugee as an extension of the ages-old principle of Sanctuary in a church. A cornerstone in the various UN declarations and charters is that of non-refoulement, meaning that a person, once they reach another country, cannot be pushed back across the border, as with the US Coast Guard versus the St Louis.

That principle, enshrined in many countries laws, explains why European navies are now helping refugees towards a safe landing in Greece, Malta, or Italy, rather than pushing them back towards Turkey or Libya.

The UNHRC video below that does a great job of explaining the Mediterranean crisis, but first a few core facts:

  • In 1989 the UNHRC is tracking about 34 million refugees (including internally displaced). As of 2013, there are 17 million more refugees**.
  • Of the approximate Syrian population of 18 million, about one-half are now some sort of refugee.
  • In 2013 there are 60,000 sea crossings to Europe; in 2014, 219,000; in the first six months of 2015, 137,000.

I want to focus on the Mediterranean crossings because that is where I think we are seeing a sea change (bad pun) and possibly a harbinger, in the dynamics of refugees. You might want to peek at this short video first. Have your Kleenex box close by. It is sad.

The Wall separating East and West Germany was an odious and inhumane dagger in the heart of Europe until it fell in 1989. Yet since then, physical barriers proliferate. The Israelis build their wall separating themselves from Palestinians. The Americans erect a protective fence along parts of the Mexican border; the Spanish have their great fence between Morocco and their North African enclave; and now the Hungarians are saying that they will build a 180 KM fence to stop immigrants from coming in through the relatively porous Serbia. Perhaps a strict interpretation of non-refoulement permits these barriers. But really, perhaps its spirit has been utterly corrupted by these fences.

Around 2005 in Canada, a Liberal immigration minister introduces changes to our laws that support “the front door, not the back door.”

Apply that principle now: There are tens of millions of UNHRC refugees waiting their turn to be accepted into a host country. For decades, many of them just sit and wait their turn. Everyone is equally desperate. Those crossing the Mediterranean are cutting into the front of that line through a back door, which uses a key called non-refoulement. How do we explain that to all the refugees in this camp in Suruc, Turkey?

Photo: © Radek Procyk 2015

Photo: © Radek Procyk 2015

And, how do these people cross the Sea, you ask? They are stripped of their life’s savings by thugs who traffic in human misery and put all of their passengers’ lives at risk in boats hopefully good enough for one more crossing. Are we not complicit in that criminality, when we scoop the refugees out of the Sea and then bring them to a European shore, rather than back to the originating shore?  We have rewarded both the line-cutters and the thugs, who can now count on an even greater demand for their services.

Click here for a photo of a Mediterranean trafficking ship/boat (It will open in a new window).

The British PM recently sent attack dogs to France, because of the hoards now trying to get through the Chunnel from Calais. That is now how bad it has become. But worse: refugees are getting a bad name in Europe (e.g.: the Norway massacre or the undertone of Netflix’s Lilyhammer). The back-door crisis is tarnishing those immigrants who come through the front door: You have the racist hatred of the right-wing parties, and you have the simmering anger of the forgotten North Africans, for instance, those in the banlieues of Paris, where, in 2012, unemployment among under-25s of African origin was 42%.

I received this alert after the initial post. Germany is quite tolerant, so we can assume a more intense reaction elsewhere.

Germany is quite tolerant, so we can assume a more intense reaction elsewhere.

So all of this kerfuffle gets me thinking about a concept I vaguely remember as “lifeboat economics.” No wonder it seems so familiar, as its author comes from the same epoch as the economists Donella [sic] and Dennis Meadows, Mr and Ms “Limits to Growth,” and demographer Paul Ehrlich, Mr “Population Bomb.” The world, they claimed, was fast approaching a nasty end, where a burgeoning population would outstrip its resources. How pleased I am to discover that Lifeboat Ethics, as it is properly called, originates with my favourite ecologist, Garrett Hardin, Mr “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Lifeboat ethics poses the question as to how you allow only 10 people into the lifeboat when there are 100 who want to get in. (More than 10 would sink the boat)

If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, … Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. (Source)

Harding’s writing is matter-of-fact: he makes it sound as if the people wanting one of those ten positions are all self-sacrificing Leonardo DiCaprio’s, patiently treading water. In fact, I think we need to insert a new metaphor into the mix: “Sinking Ship Ethics.” And the new question becomes how do you deal with the mass of people that are swimming from their sinking ship towards you in your small, but plush boat, swimming and swarming over top of each other, kicking and screaming, and will do everything to get on your boat. In this case, there are few ethics for anyone involved.

It’s not a nice scenario, but the Mediterranean this summer might just be a harbinger for far worse. Perhaps tough and disquieting questions need to be asked: Maybe we need to ask whether my cherished non-defoulement is a principle that can always be applied.

The subtitle for Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics, by the way, is The Case for not Helping the Poor. Brutal. But from an ecologist’s perspective, humans have no special claim against the cruelty of nature.

Environmentalists, such as me, can be real downers.

© Radek Procyk 2015

© Radek Procyk 2015


* The best book on the Canadian jewish refugee situation is Irving Abella’s book, None is Too Many. My own archival research traces the journey of a Jewish-German boy who did gain entry to Canada, but only because Canadian officials thought that he was a Nazi. More on that in a subsequent post.

** The number of refugees accounted for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can be broken down into three categories: For 2013: Internally displaced persons: 33 million; refugees 17 million; Asylum-seekers: around one million. These numbers are approximate, as I am reading from a chart.


In all of my posts, blue links open in a separate window. (This is not a link, just blue type)


Exodus photo used within the terms of the Wikimedia licence. Two Suruc photos © Radek Procyk and are used under a purchased licence.


August 14: Added a screen shot of a new alert I received from the NY Times.


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