By Ruth Vanita
One often sees attempts in the media these days to establish equivalence between refugees from Syria and Iraq (with Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis mixed in) today and Jewish refugees during World War II, many of whom were turned away from the US and other countries. There are many reasons why this is a ‘false equivalence’.
First, most Middle Eastern refugees constitute the mainstream and majority populations of the countries in which a civil war is being waged. In the last few years, similar civil wars have been (and some still are being) waged in many countries, including several countries in Africa. Most Middle Eastern refugees (with the exception of Yazidis, Christians, and Shias in some regions), are not being specially targeted by the combatants. They are suffering as all populations suffer during civil wars.
It might be desirable to offer refuge to the populations of countries torn by civil war, and to be fair, such refuge should also be offered to the populations of African countries, many of which have been suffering for a much longer time.
It might be desirable to offer refuge to the populations of countries torn by civil war, and to be fair, such refuge should also be offered to the populations of African countries, many of which have been suffering for a much longer time. ISIS’s barbaric actions are receiving more media attention in part because of ISIS’s own desire to glorify its horrors through publicity videos. This obscures the fact that many other extremists of different persuasions have used and are using equally terrible methods of torture, for example, in the Central African Republic and in Sudan, mass murder, mutilations, forced cannibalism, and the rape and forced conscription of children have been reported.
However, all of this is different from the Nazis’ attempt to systematically destroy a tiny minority of the population. Had large numbers of non-Jewish Germans sought to flee Nazism by asking for asylum in other countries, thatwould have been the equivalent of the current refugee situation.
Second, Syrian and Iraqi Muslims have several large, rich, Muslim-majority countries in their vicinity, such as Saudi Arabia, where they could be offered refuge. The US, which considers Saudi Arabia an ally, could put pressure on it to accept refugees. Jews in World War II had no Jewish-majority state they could go to. When the US turned Jews away, they sent them not to the chance of death in war that all citizens of war-torn countries faced, but to targeted slaughter.
Third, several reports indicate that a majority of the refugees today are males, and that a significant proportion of them are seeking enhanced economic opportunities as much as fleeing civil war or extremism. Some of the refugees are from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are not in a state of civil war. Again, a case could be made for allowing economic migrants into wealthier countries, but such opportunities should be offered even-handedly to people from other poor countries as well.
The Jews who fled Nazi Germany and were refused asylum in the US and elsewhere were not fleeing in order to seek economic betterment.This is not to say that the US or Europe should not offer refuge to Middle Eastern refugees. It is simply to point out that establishing a false equivalence does not help the case of the refugees.
Ruth Vanita taught English at Delhi University for 20 years and now teaches World Humanities at the University of Montana. The author of several books, most recently Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry (1780-1870), she also edited the pioneering book, Same-Sex Love in India, with SaleemKidwai. She has also translated many works of fiction and poetry from Hindi to English. She divides her time between Missoula and Gurgaon; this year, she will also spend some months at Cambridge, England.