Closing the door to tyranny's victims

Kenneth Lasson

May 29, 1992|By Kenneth Lasson

THE U.S. government's decision to close the door on thousands of Haitians desperately seeking a modicum of life, liberty and happiness has made a mockery of traditional American compassion for the downtrodden.

But standing firm on wrongheaded principle -- forcing poor people to turn their boats around for the sake of bureaucratic or political expediency -- is hardly unique to the Bush administration. Sadly, we haven't learned much from the lessons of history.

In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt refused entry to nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the infamous St. Louis, a former luxury liner that circled helplessly for days off the coast of Miami Beach, Fla., until a Coast Guard patrol boat chased it out to sea. The St. Louis made its way back to Europe, where its forlorn passengers were put ashore. Most eventually perished in the death camps.

Probably the most famous refugee ship of this century was a rickety Chesapeake Bay tourist boat called President Warfield (after Solomon Warfield, president of the Old Bay Line and an uncle of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the duchess of Windsor). In 1946, the flat-bottomed, four-decked ferry was salvaged by two charitable Baltimoreans, Moses Speert and Herman Seidel, and renamed the Exodus. After steaming across the Atlantic and sailing from port to port under the watchful eyes of British intelligence, it was finally permitted to pick up its intended passengers in France: some 4,500 European Jews seeking refuge in Palestine.

The refugees, including 1,732 women and 955 children, had no papers, no passports -- and no place to go. Compelled by the British navy to wander off the coast of Palestine for two months, the Exodus ultimately surrendered its huddle masses at the Israeli port of Haifa -- where they were summarily reloaded onto three British prison ships and returned to France. For 19 days the British kept the disease-ridden refugees achored offshore in the harbor at Port-de-Bouc in France, from whence many of them had embarked just months earlier.

A French newspaper dubbed the ships a "floating Auschwitz." ** Five babies were born on board; one died. A young French cabinet minister named Francois Mitterrand announced that his government would not force the passengers to disembark on French soil. Finally the three British ships sailed north, where they disgorged their homeless cargo at Hamburg, Germany.

Hollywood turned the account of the voyage given in novelist Leon Uris' "Exodus" into a memorable film. The St. Louis incident also served as the basis for a book by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, "The Voyage of the Damned." But that's seems to be about all we have left in our collective memory about two of the most shameful episodes of 20th-century diplomacy. The Haitians of 1992 have gotten only a smattering of sound bites on the network news and a few paragraphs buried on the inside pages of the papers.

The strict legal question is whether President Bush's executive order violates the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, signed by the United States in 1967, which guarantees that refugees will not be returned to countries where their lives or freedom are threatened. The administration argues that the treaty does not protect Haitian boat people because they have not reached U.S. soil.

Yet various human rights groups claim to have documented what happens to the boat people who have been forced to return to Haiti. They report reprisals in the form of torture and murder.

Moreover, the Refugee Act of 1980, which was designed specifically to govern the implementation of American refugee policy, is notably vague about which people are to be considered of "special humanitarian concern" and how that determination should be made. Presently, refugee admissions officers receive no training in how to establish whether an applicant has a "well-founded fear of persecution" and there are few substantive or procedural rules to guide them.

But the issue of the Haitian boat people is a moral issue as well as a legal problem. The real question is whether our current policy is based more on administrative convenience and short-term economic constraints than on the traditional, widely held American values regarding our obligations to the victims of persecution.

Americans may be materialistic and short-sighted, but most can still remember their own immigrant origins. We don't like freeloaders or welfare cheats, but historically we are still the most generous country in the world when it comes to welcoming the victims of persecution.

There's no reason to forget those values now. We should learn from our own all too recent history.

Kenneth Lasson teaches civil liberties at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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