In 1951, after witnessing a second world war, a genocide and an iron curtain descending across Europe, nations of the world finally united to establish a Refugee Convention and share responsibility for those who no longer had a home or a homeland. Among the displaced at that time were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees and asylum seekers.
For the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, the
Yet today there are more refugees and displaced persons — 65 million — than there have been since the
The 135-year-old organization I currently lead, HIAS, demonstrates Jewish communal support welcoming and protecting refugees. For many years, HIAS helped refugees because they were Jewish. Now we help refugees because we are Jewish.
Welcoming the stranger is central to our tradition and to our shared experience, and we know there is too much at stake to become paralyzed by xenophobia and intolerance. Recognizing this communal obligation to act, nearly 200 synagogues across America have already signaled their willingness to help welcome refugees in their communities. Last year, over 1,200 American rabbis signed onto a statement in support of refugee resettlement.
The refugee situations of today might be different from those which caused Jews to flee in the Nazi era. But the public and political sentiments that prevent refugees from finding a new place to call home are very similar. Refugees, by definition, have a well-founded fear of persecution. Yet too many nations and people seem to have an unfounded fear of refugees.
Global leaders have an opportunity to reverse these unfortunate trends when they meet Monday at the
These leaders might not be able to come up with a plan to solve the world refugee crisis in two days, but they must commit themselves to a vision on which such plans can be built. Such a vision would ensure that every refugee who seeks protection from persecution will find it (the fundamental tenet of the Refugee Convention); every refugee will find a place to call home (without waiting many years, as is now the case); and every refugee’s human rights will be respected (including the rights to work and education).
By working together, countries can hold one another accountable. They should make a collective pledge to resettle at least 10% of the world's refugees each year and provide much more assistance for their integration.
Now is the time for the world to recommit to the ideals and promises of the Refugee Convention. In memory of the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust, including 254 refugees returned to Europe aboard the St. Louis, it is up to all of us — to governments, to civil society, to communities of faith — to live up to the promise made in 1951 to protect and welcome those who flee. Millions of lives have been on hold for too long.
Mark Hetfield is president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish organization that protects refugees.