The world's media today is focused on the deaths of boat people fleeing Africa for Europe. There's a lot of wringing of hands and talk about ways to prevent future such disasters.
But I would argue that it would make more sense to step back and remember that refugees fleeing persecution by boat has a long history. I'm sure there are examples that go back much further than mine, but they are hard to find. The Israelites fleeing Egypt across the Red Sea is different because they didn't go in boats. But I'm sure there were plenty of people who fled various wars and famines by boat.
Let's look at these and consider at the end what they have in common and how the world might develop mechanisms to mitigate future such migrations. Each of the examples below are just snippets from larger posts that you can view through the links.
Europeans of various religious denomination fleeing to the New World - 1600s - 1700s
from the Library of Congress
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as "inforced uniformity of religion," meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
The African Slave Trade
While the circumstances of the slave trade were different from the situation of refugees, the experience of horrendous sea voyages to distant lands is relevant. From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The level of slave exports grew from about 36,000 a year during the early 18th century to almost 80,000 a year during the 1780s.
The Angolan region of west-central Africa made up slightly more than half of all Africans sent to the Americas and a quarter of imports to British North America.
Approximately 11,863,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, with a death rate during the Middle Passage reducing this number by 10-20 percent. As a result between 9.6 and 10.8 million Africans arrived in the Americas.
Irish Fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s:
|Image from Historyplace|
"Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to British North America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over five thousand at Grosse Isle.
Up to half of the men that survived the journey to Canada walked across the border to begin their new lives in America. They had no desire to live under the Union Jack flag in sparsely populated British North America. They viewed the United States with its anti-British tradition and its bustling young cities as the true land of opportunity. Many left their families behind in Canada until they had a chance to establish themselves in the U.S.
Americans, unfortunately, not only had an anti-British tradition dating back to the Revolutionary era, but also had an anti-Catholic tradition dating back to the Puritan era. America in the 1840s was a nation of about 23 million inhabitants, mainly Protestant. Many of the Puritan descendants now viewed the growing influx of Roman Catholic Irish with increasing dismay."
Jews Fleeing From Nazi Germany
Both my parents participated in this story, though their passages across the Atlantic were relatively civilized and they had managed to get proper papers. But their parents did not.
Here is one harrowing story of a ship that was sent back to Europe
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The voyage of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees. Indeed, the passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government. The Director-General of the Cuban immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, had come under a great deal of public scrutiny for the illegal sale of landing certificates. He routinely sold such documents for $150 or more and, according to US estimates, had amassed a personal fortune of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Though he was a protégé of Cuban army chief of staff (and future president) Fulgencio Batista, Benitez's self-enrichment through corruption had fueled sufficient resentment in the Cuban government to bring about his resignation. . . .
Following the US government's refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.
Jewish Refugees Trying To Reach Palestine After WW II
The ship Exodus 1947 became a symbol of Aliya Bet — illegal immigration. After World War II, illegal immigration increased and the British authorities decided to stop it by sending the ships back to the ports of embarkation in Europe. The first ship to which this policy was applied was the Exodus 1947.
Image sourceThe ship sailed from the port of Site, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, on board. As soon as it left the territorial waters of France, British destroyers accompanied it. On July 18, near the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and boarded it, while the immigrants put up a desperate defense. Two immigrants and a crewman were killed in the battle, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced onto deportation ships bound for France. At Port-de-Bouc, in southern France, the would-be immigrants remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heat wave, refusing to disembark despite the shortage of food, the crowding and the abominable sanitary conditions. The French government refused to force them off the boat. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany, and on August 22 the ship left for the port of Hamburg, then in the British occupation zone. The immigrants were forcibly taken off and transported to two camps near Lubeck.Journalists who covered the dramatic struggle described to the entire world the heartlessness and cruelty of the British. World public opinion was outraged and the British changed their policy. Illegal immigrants were not sent back to Europe; they were instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.The majority of the passengers on the Exodus 1947 settled in Israel, though some had to wait until after the establishment of the State of Israel.
Cuban Boat People 1960 - 2015
After Castro's revolution in Cuba, people have been trying to make the 100 mile boat trip to Florida, many making it, many not. There were many, many small boats over the years. There were a few times when large number of boats left Cuba. But I didn't find a succinct overview of the number of people who left Cuba during all that time. Here's a photo essay from 1994.
Vietnamese Boat People 1975-1980s
Starting in 1975, after the US left Vietnam in defeat, many Vietnamese fled, disastrously, by boat.
Image sourceWhen the Americans lost the Vietnam War there were many who did not wish to stay in Vietnam. Those with influence were airlifted out by the Americans but many had to make do with crowding onto leaky boats and making the journey from Vietnam to the gulf of Thailand. In doing so they unwittingly wrote themselves into modern pirate history.Conditions were perfect for piracy. The local fishermen were poor and were looking for an easy means to supplement their income. The Vietnamese government did not care about them and the Thai government was not anxious to receive large boatloads of refugees. No one cared about the fate of the boat people so allegations of piracy were often ignored. It was only when the incidents became more shocking that pressure was brought to bear on the Thai government by maritime interests led by the Americans. By then thousands had been robbed, raped and murdered.
These are just a few examples, ones that got some attention.
So what do they have in common?
- Leaving conditions where their lives were threatened by religious or political persecution. In the case of the Irish hunger was added to the other two reasons.
- The quotas for accepting refugees in other countries was much lower than the number of refugees.
- Conditions on the ships ranged from relatively comfortable to nearly suicidal.
Thus solutions will involve:
- Improving economic and political conditions around the world so people have no reason to flee so perilously.
- When that fails, have reasonably decent housing and living conditions for refugees until they can find a permanent new homeland.
- Increase understanding of destination populations so they are more welcoming.