WESTERN governments today often try to justify tightening controls on immigrants and refugees by claiming that their acceptance of escaping Jews in the 1930s shows they have no problem with those “genuinely” seeking asylum.
The truth about the 1930s and 1940s is far from this rosy picture. The atmosphere of hostility towards Jewish immigration on the part of Western governments was central to creating a feeling of hopelessness among potential migrants.
Over 2,000 refugees were sent back from Britain to Germany in the 1930s because they did not have the correct papers, although it was Nazi government policy to send returnees to concentration camps. The signals given out were clearly designed to discourage most Jews from fleeing West. The British government said it did not want “persons likely to seek employment, agents and middlemen, minor musicians, commercial artists, the rank and file of doctors, lawyers, dentists”.
By July 1939 the Foreign Office was questioning the status of fleeing Jews as refugees. One high official claimed, “A great many are not in any sense political refugees.”
Western governments held a conference in Evian, France, in 1938 to send an unmistakable message to eastern European governments and their Jewish populations that Jewish immigrants and refugees would not be accepted by Britain, France or the US.
The Nazi press was clear about the meaning of Evian: “No state is prepared to fight the cultural disgrace of Central Europe by accepting a few thousand Jews. Thus the conference serves to justify Germany’s policy against Jewry.”
Hostility to fleeing Jewish refugees did not stop with the war. Neutral Sweden proposed in 1943 that if Britain and the US were willing to pay the costs and agree to looking after them after the war, there was the possibility of 20,000 Jewish children being released from central Europe to Sweden.
A US state department official wrote, “Any rescue concentrating on Jewish children might antagonise the Nazis and prevent other possible co-operative acts.”
The proposal was dropped. This is the “golden age” of granting asylum.