Turkey, Syria and refugees: a 1940s lesson

The experience of people in flight from genocide in Europe seventy years ago illuminates state failure today over Syrian refugees.

İpek K Yosmaoğlu
15 October 2015

The Milka, a small, ramshackle ship docked in the port of Istanbul. Aboard are 240 refugees. Without permission to disembark, they wait as officials weigh their options and debate whether they should be granted passage through Turkey. Thanks to the combined efforts of the British and American governments, the refugees are allowed to leave the ship a day later, and escorted by police to the Haydarpasa station where they start their train journey to the safety of - Syria.

In today’s global context, Syria as a transit station to safety sounds surreal at best. But in March 1942, when this incident took place, Syria was indeed a safe haven for the Jewish refugees from Romania who had risked their lives to reach Palestine. We tend to forget that the direction of refugees across the Mediterranean some seven decades ago went in the opposite direction of the fragile rafts and dinghies carrying thousands of desperate people from Syria today. Recalling this history is valuable, and not just for its own sake: it indicates strongly that the current lack of leadership in the countries best placed to solve the latest humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean reflects a failure to draw proper lessons from the earlier one.

The refugees on the Milka were lucky to complete their harrowing journey alive. The same is true of other vessels such as the Maritza and the incongruously named Bella Citta, chartered in 1944 at the height of the Holocaust by the Jewish Agency's Rescue Committee in Istanbul. Not so lucky had been the 769 aboard the Struma that arrived in Istanbul in December 1941. The Struma waited in vain for weeks in the Bosphorus, with a banner that read “Save Us” attached to its mast, while Turkish officials upheld their policy banning transit to any “foreign Jews” without “Palestine Certificates” issued by Britain. Despite pledges from local Jewish organisations to cover the refugees’ expenses while ashore, the refugees (many of them children) were forced to stay aboard a ship that did not even have a working engine.

The impasse was broken when Britain finally agreed to grant permission to the refugee children to go to Palestine. By then, however, a Turkish tugboat had left the Struma to its fate north of the Bosphorus. The boat was drifting with the Black Sea tides when, on 24 February 1942, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The only survivor of the wreck, a young man named David Stoilar, was detained and questioned by the Istanbul police for weeks and was released only after a prominent Jewish businessman appealed to the local authorities.

The Struma was not the first ship carrying Jewish refugees to go down. But this tragedy struck a chord in Britain, in part because it coincided with urgent reports from within Nazi-occupied territories in Europe about the fate of Jews. Under mounting pressure both from the British public and the United States government, the British government was led to revise its visa policy for Palestine.

The notion that Turkish diplomats saved “countless Jews” from certain death in Nazi Europe is often repeated, but a myth. In fact, well after the Struma incident - and indeed after the details of the planned "final solution" were widely known - Turkey implemented what may in retrospect be called an immoral policy of obstructing the transit of Jewish refugees through the country. Neither did it offer them asylum. It was only in 1944, when the war's outcome was becoming certain, that Turkey cut off diplomatic ties with Germany and rescue efforts by Turkish authorities could proceed unhindered.

Turkey's refusal in the early 1940s to let people transit the country on their way to safety put it on the wrong side of history. It is a clear contrast with the present crisis, when Ankara has opened the country's borders without so much as passport controls for Syrian refugees. 

The wrong choice

Yet at the highest level, how much have attitudes changed? Not much, if the cynical admonishments of President Erdoǧan to the European Union are a guide. (Turkey hosts “2.2 million refugees, while Europe as a whole houses less than 250,000 in total [sic]”, he said.) Erdoǧan is correct in criticising the embarrassing inertia of the European Union in dealing with the refugee crisis. But his remarks are still cynical, for five reasons.

First, because his failed gambit to oust Bashar al-Assad directly contributed to the tide of refugees washing up on Mediterranean shores. Second, because these people have no means of surviving with their dignity intact in Turkey. Third, because Turkey does not provide them with legal means either to live in or to leave the country. Fourth, because human smugglers operate with impunity in Turkey. Fifth, because Erdoǧan has used their plight as a pretext to hit ostensibly IS targets in Syria, when the whole world knows that the real targets are Kurdish guerrillas aligned with the PKK in Turkey.

What can be said about Israel, the country that was founded on the suffering of refugees like those on the Struma? Arad Nir writes in Al-Monitor that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proud that no illegal immigrants have gained access to Israel via Egypt since his erection of a fence along the southern border.”  After this fence proved its worth, the construction of a new one started along the border with Jordan, which houses the largest number of Syrian refugees after Turkey and Lebanon. At its groundbreaking ceremony, Israel's defence minister Moshe Ya’alon said: “We can see the stream of refugees washing over Europe. What is happening in Europe could have happened to us, had we not behaved in an intelligent manner.”

The wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean have returned more bodies of drowned children this summer than any in recent history. When the photograph of Aylan al-Kurdi was published in early September, people were haunted by the image of that tiny body lying dead on a beach where he should have been building sandcastles. There was hope among grief that this would be a wake-up call, a moment like the sinking of the Struma perhaps. How wrong have we been, all of us naïve enough to think that faced with a choice between empathy for fellow humans and a miserly fear of the untidy masses, the leadership of the “civilised world” would opt for the former. 

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