On the 80th anniversary of the Evian conference, take a moment to learn about its legacy, the situation for refugees today, and the mission of Lord Alf Dubs– who was a Kindertransport child himself in 1938– upon his visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos Greece. Check out this video from Channel 4 News (UK).

Correspondent Jon Snow interviews refugee families from Syria and Iraq in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos Greece as they discuss their quest for protection. Snow said, “Here they languish in no-man’s-land, caught between a blasted past and a Europe unwilling to have them come further.” In these camps, thousands of refugees live in extremely poor conditions, crammed together, fighting for food as they wait for their asylum requests to be processed. When asked about the conditions in the camps, the UNHCR regional representative, Philippe Leclerc, said:

There is no reason to keep as many persons on these islands. It has broken, actually, the trust… [and] solidarity we have seen exercised by the local community towards refugees that we have all been celebrating. This [overspill] is creating violence and mistrust between local communities and refugees, because of a bad management of the situation.

Jon Snow continued, “Where child refugees are concerned, we have been here before, back in 1938.” He recalls the Jewish refugees rescued by Nicholas Winton, the British humanitarian who helped in the rescue of 669 children, most of whom were Jewish, on the Czech Kindertransport in 1938. Snow interviewed Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton, on her visit to a refugee camp. She said:

I have articles from my father’s scrapbook at the time that have the same sentiments in them: “We don’t want these Jews in our country taking our jobs and upsetting the horses,” or whatever […] you read in the papers today. So I know there was opposition then. But what we carry as a nation…is a kind of positive narrative of how compassionate we were and how worthwhile it was and how much those child refugees have grown up to contribute.”

Remembering the Evian Conference

80 years ago, on July 6 1938, as the Jewish refugee crisis worsened, United States President Franklin Roosevelt initiated an international conference in Evian, France to discuss the situation as Jews fled Germany. Delegates from 32 countries met and expressed that while they felt something should be done to help the Jews in their quest for protection, their countries could not or would not accommodate them. For example, delegates from the countries made the following statements about their country’s (lack of) capacity to take in refugees:

  • Australia“Australia has her own particular difficulties . . . Under the circumstances Australia cannot do more… as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration . . .  I hope that the conference will find a solution of this tragic world problem.”
  • Great Britain: “It has been the traditional policy of successive British Governments to offer asylum to persons who, for political, racial or religious reasons, have had to leave their own countries. The United Kingdom has never yet had cause to regret this policy, and refugees have often enriched the life and contributed to the prosperity of the British people. But the United Kingdom is not a country of immigration. It is highly industrialized, fully populated and is still faced with the problem of unemployment.”

While it is even said that Hitler joked–“We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships” — countries closed their doors to those seeking protection. Today, countries are left with the legacy of their inaction. For more information on the Evian Conference, check out our post from 2017, “The International Community Reacts.”

I was saved… What makes one of them any different?

Screenshot from Channel 4 News video, 2018.

Snow also interviewed Lord Alf Dubs, who was a Kindertransport child himself, on his visit to a refugee camp. It is Dubs’ mission to bring unaccompanied child refugees to Britain, and he said he visited the refugee camp to see what governments, the EU, and agencies can do to help. In an article entitled “Lord Alf Dubs: I was saved as a child refugee. It is to our shame that we won’t help them now,” Dubs recalls his experience on the Kindertransport in relation to the crisis today. He says:

 There are Afghan boys fleeing war and recruitment by extremist groups. What makes one of them any different from me? Why can they not be seen in terms of how much potential they have to enrich the country welcoming them, instead of as a burden?

Links in this post

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What do you think Snow meant when he said, “Where child refugees are concerned, we have been here before, back in 1938.”
  2. What connections do you see between what Nicholas Winton did for the unaccompanied children back in 1938 and what Alf Dubs wants to do today?
  3. What lessons can we learn from the Evian conference regarding state action and inaction, for today?