Active Remembering: Urgent Significance of Offshore Detention of Jewish Refugees

18 Jun, 2021 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest, Refugee Week 2021, Stop the hostile environment

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By Stav Salpeter, Ambassador, René Cassin

The Home Office caused an uproar when it announced its plans to reinstate a system of offshore detention last fall. The concern of adopting the widely criticised Australian model came on top of longstanding criticism of the UK’s existing indefinite detention system. The media attention died down as it always does, although the proposed policy is very much still on the table. This refugee week, we need to recall it and stand firmly against it as a community.

As children, we were all taught our biblical obligations to “love the stranger”, but fewer of us know of the more recent Jewish history of offshore detention. As Dr. Lucy Mayblin, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield has reflected, “there is a very active forgetting of unpleasant histories”, especially in relation to Britain’s colonial past.

For me, this history is deeply personal. During winter 1940, my great grandfather Joseph left his home in Vienna and walked across the forests of Europe with nothing but a rucksack to his name. He weathered the cold and evaded Nazi patrols, desperate to board a ship to Haifa, only to be detained by forces of the British Mandate upon his arrival. Transferred from camp to camp, Joseph was lucky enough to be released after four months of internment. Over 50,000 of the refugees who had made the perilous journey to escape Nazism in Europe alongside him, however, were not so lucky.

They were sent off to face indefinite offshore detention in repurposed colonial camps and ragtag barbed-wire-enclosed huts in Cyprus and Mauritius. Men and women were separated and forced to live in squalid conditions with no indication of when they would be released. Yael Kaufman, a senior archivist at the Bintivey Ha’apala Center in the Atlit Detention Camp, told me she had recently spoken to a witness whose mother was detained in Cyprus after the Holocaust. “The idea of being locked up and detained in a camp again,” she explained, “was unbearable.”

Today, many of those facing offshore detention also report the “triggering” nature of indefinite detention, aggravated by the secrecy and isolation of the Australian camps. The lack of transparency breeds impunity, as evidenced by common reports of inhumane conditions, inadequate medical access, and generally “an  environment  rife  with  sporadic  acts  of physical   and   sexual   violence”. In light of these reports, the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor concluded that the offshoring policy appears to meet the threshold for “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”, which constitutes a violation of International Law.

As the Australian experience shows, the camps do not even achieve the questionable aims they purport to have. In the words of Dr. Savitri Taylor, an Associate Professor at La Trobe University and an expert on refugee law and policy, “Australia has spent billions of dollars on its offshoring strategy and there is no end in sight. In purely economic terms it is a completely irrational strategy. In human rights terms, it is a disastrous strategy.” Then why do governments continue to promote it?

The answer, explains Dr. Taylor, lies in political calculations that assume popular support for harsh border control measures.

And that is where each of us comes in. As individuals and as a Jewish community, we have a responsibility to stand up against this policy, to topple the imagined pillar of popular support it rests on. Six months ago, we passed a motion at the Union of Jewish Students, the body representing 8,500 students across the UK and Ireland, committing to “categorically oppose offshore detention centres based on the historical Jewish experience of such centres and the proven human rights abuses that take place within them contemporaneously.” It is time the rest of our community followed suit.

The quotes of Dr. Mayblin, Ms. Kaufman and Dr. Taylor in this article are from our “Off-Shore Detention Centres: Jewish History & Future Trajectories” Panel (January 10th 2021). You can watch the full panel discussion here.

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