Museum offers sad lesson as EC studies refugee issue

December 10, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMSTERDAM -- A letter pinned to the wall of the Anne Frank House here, dated April 25, 1939, will remind anyone who wanders through these sad rooms of the enduring misery of the political refugee.

It is a misery brought into being when nations set boundaries and control passage across them. It is still a problem.

That's why it is a topic certain to generate heat at the European Community summit under way at Maastricht, the little town at the southern tip of this minute country known as a haven for the persecuted since it took in Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

The name of the recipient of the letter is blotted out, but he is revealed in Anne Frank's diary as a Mr. "van Daan," the head of the family which hid from the Nazis for 25 months here along with the family of Otto Frank.

The letter was a reply to his request for asylum in the United States, signed by R. A. Huestins, U.S. diplomatic consul in Rotterdam at the time. It tells him his wait for a visa would be "indefinite."

It is a cold letter made cooler by our knowledge of what happened to the families. No chance, it says. No escape from Hitler by fleeing.

And so, the families, unable to flee, sought refuge by hiding in the upper rear rooms of the house on the Prinsengracht. But on Aug. 4, 1944, they were turned out by the Germans.

All went to their deaths but Otto Frank, Anne's father. He survived to turn over to the Dutch government the story of his family's concealment and annihilation contained in his daughter's diary.

The Frank House, a museum now, sits on a sluggish canal close to the Western Church, where Rembrandt is buried. The church peals out Christmas carols these days while in the second-floor rooms of the house on the Prinsengracht the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has a display of pictures and stories of persecuted people who have found asylum in Europe in recent years.

These are the people that xenophobes like Jean Marie le Pen are going around saying there are too many of. Mr. le Pen is chief of the National Front Party in France. If he ever comes to power, he says he will expel these people or put them in concentration camps, which iswhere the Germans put Anne Frank.

A walk through the Frank House could alert people to the dangerous potential of Mr. le Pen's bitter attitudes. It counsels you to believe that, given the chance, they will do what they say.

Mr. le Pen's animus at the moment is directed toward North Africans who have come to France to find better lives. These are the people with the same dark-complexioned faces one sees in the pictures in the Frank House exhibit.

They are also seen in the streets of London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin and along the canals here in the Dutch capital. They are the children of the defunct empires these countries once ruled. In some way their presence here is a kind of historical justice.

Not everyone accepts that proposition, and the arguments against it will resound at Maastricht. Sentiment in the upper levels of EC governments is now strong for tighter border controls. Those proposing liberal asylum are on the fringe: Amnesty International, for instance.

Late last month, Amnesty issued a report criticizing the EC for its "restrictive approach toward asylum seekers which threatened to undermine universal standards dealing with the protection of people at risk of serious human rights violations."

The feeling exists, and it is cultivated by more than the likes of Mr. le Pen, that Europe faces a deluge of refugees from the Third World. Added to that are potential refugees from the dismantling of the Soviet Union and from Eastern Europe if market economies don't work.

Consider this from EC Commissioner for Social Affairs Vasso Papandreou, speaking of EC policy on refugees and immigrants: "The purpose is to go to a controlled flow. We must control immigration and take the necessary measures."

The fear has gotten a lot of press. In France, Mr. le Pen's tactics have more and more people persuaded they are about to be overwhelmed, despite a reported finding by the National Institute of Demographic Studies that there were fewer foreigners in the country last year than in 1982.

In Italy, the government reported that there are only 750,000 illegal immigrants in the country. Nobody believes it.

XTC In Britain, the government minister in charge of asylum policy was ruled in contempt by the country's highest court for expelling a Zairean seeking asylum after the court ordered him not to. Such a ruling against a Cabinet officer had not happened in Britain before.

Across the continent, xenophobic parties, once despised, have sprung into prominence. Fascists march in Spain. The right-wing Vlaams Blok has done well in elections in Belgium. In Germany, Republican Party recruits march in the street, attacking Turks and screaming of millions poised in the East.

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