There has been a swell of opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks, leading to comparisons of how the world reacted to an influx of refugees during previous generations.
The Liberal government says its sticking with its election campaign promise as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told Global News it “will not compromise on the security investigations.”
But critics aren’t certain and following the attacks in Paris, more than 35,000 people have put their names to an online petition to demand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau halt the resettlement of Syrians, while Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall also wants Trudeau to suspend his plans.
South of the border, the governors of at least 30 states now say they will refuse to accept Syrian refugees out of fears that terrorists may slip through the cracks.
Amid the debate over whether or not to resettle Syrians, or at the very least how soon, there has been a revisiting of history, of sorts, in hopes of countering anti-refugee sentiment.
There have been several instances in the past where a large influx of refugees headed to the western world including Jewish people during the Second World War, Hungarians in the late 1950s and Vietnamese in the 1970s.
Over the weekend, a December 2013 article from the Halifax Chronicle Herald on Canada turning back a German ocean liner full of Jewish refugees became one of the publication’s most popular stories.
It was in 1939 and the ship was the St. Louis. After Canada refused to accept the 907 Jewish refugees and turned the St. Louis away, 254 of them were eventually put to death in Nazi concentration camps.
The article became a rallying point online:
But Noah Shack, a researcher with the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs, is leery of such comparisons.
“If you look at the global effort to help the refugees on the ground in countries like Jordan and Turkey and Lebanon, these are things that didn’t exist during the Second World War,” Shack said.
“The Jews had nowhere to go. There were no countries like Jordan next door to where the Holocaust was taking place that they could just escape to.”
The comparison between anti-refugee sentiment now and anti-Semitism in the 1930s appeared in U.S. media this week as well. The Washington Post published an article Tuesday revisiting the American public’s predominantly hostile view toward accepting predominantly Jewish refugees from German and Austria in 1938 and 1939.
When asked, “What is your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come into the United States?” 67.4 per cent of respondents to the July 1938 survey agreed they should be kept out “given the conditions at the time.”
“As people were sort of turning against one religious group, a non-Christian group of Jews, are they turning against another group, the Muslims? I don’t know that that’s what this is all about,” said Susan McGrath, a resident scholar at York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies and a member of the Order of Canada.
“But … there are some similarities and certainly there are differences.”
Shack argues the stakes and the sentiment are different today than in the years leading up to the Second World War.
“Certainly people are anxious about security concerns, given what’s recently happened in Paris,” Shack said.
Canadians can also take stock on a couple of other notable moments when refugees hit our shores.
But the situation for today’s refugees is quite dire, said McGrath.
She notes that more than 3,500 refugees and migrants have died while trying to get to Europe by sea so far this year, including many Syrians.
Those who have stayed in camps are living in “squalid conditions” and are still at risk,” McGrath said. “They had kids freeze to death … in Jordan last winter.”
She said some of the anti-refugee sentiment today has similarities to xenophobic misconceptions of decades past.
“Similar concerns were raised about the Vietnamese,” when Canada brought in more than 50,000 so-called “boat people” from Vietnam 35 years ago.
People feared Canada was going to “let a bunch of communists in,” McGrath said.
Instead, those refugees “have contributed richly to our country.”