On May 13, 1939 the St. Louis steamed out of the port of Hamburg, Germany, with 937 Jews on board who were desperately attempting to flee from Nazi rule. 26,000 Jews had already been arrested and deported to concentration camps. The ship was bound for Cuba, and its voyage became known as the Voyage of the Damned.
Landing permits were required for entry into Cuba, and in early 1939 a decree (Decree 55) was passed which drew a distinction between the landing of refugees and tourists. The decree stated that all refugees needed visas and were required to pay a bond. The decree also stated that tourists did not need visas, only landing permits, but did not define the difference between a refugee and a tourist. The Cuban Director of Immigration at the time, Manuel Benitez, decided that he would take advantage of this loophole to make money. He sold tourist landing permits which would allow refugees to land in Cuba. The permits were made to look like visas and were individually signed by Benitez. Some people bought large groups of the permits, and then resold them to desperate refugees for a much higher price. Benitez made a small fortune from the profits of the permits and commission from a cruise line.
The President of Cuba, Frederico Laredo Bru, moved to close the loophole in Decree 55. Cuba’s economy had begun to stagnate and many blamed the incoming refugees for taking jobs that otherwise would have been held by Cubans. On May 5, Decree 937 was passed which called for all arrivals in Cuba to have a valid visa. Almost every passenger on the St. Louis had purchased an overpriced landing permit which, by the time of sailing, had already been nullified by Decree 937.
The day before the ship was to arrive in Havana, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, received a telegram advising that the St. Louis would not be allowed to dock. The St. Louis was anchored in the harbour for days while negotiations took place, and passengers were not permitted to disembark. Some claim that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, sent agents to Havana to stir up anti-Semitism. Jews were portrayed as criminals and the Jewish refugees entering Cuba via the St. Louis were seen as a threat. The ship was ordered to leave peacefully or else be forced out by the Cuban navy. The St. Louis headed for the coast of Florida, but the US Immigration Office in Miami announced that under no circumstances would the passengers be allowed to enter the US. The United States had firm immigration quotas for its annual German-Austrian intake and would not exceed them. Canada and the various South American countries that were approached would not offer protection either.
Eventually, Captain Schroeder had no options left and on June 7, he informed the passengers that they were returning to Europe. Some of the passengers took their own lives, rather than face being returned to Germany. Negotiations between USA and Britain saw places made available in Britain for some passengers. The rest were taken to Belgium, France and the Netherlands and had to face their persecutors when Europe was invaded by the Nazis. Many were eventually sent to the Nazi death camps.
The story of the St. Louis reads almost exactly like a people smuggling venture to Australia, but rather than the intended destination being Christmas Island, the ship was bound for Cuba, for eventual entry of passengers into USA. In many cases, extended families pooled money to buy a passage for one family member in the hope that others could also be brought to freedom.
Inflated prices were paid for what people thought were genuine visas, as often happens in the travel agent offices of countries such as Lebanon. Travel arrangements were made and people were in transit before the new decree was announced. They would not have heard the news of the rule changes before they boarded the ship, just as many of those heading to Christmas Island would not have heard, before they left, the announcement of Australia’s refusal to resettle any asylum seeker who arrives by boat.
With claims of the passengers being job stealers and criminals, the St. Louis was not allowed to dock in Cuba, and was turned away. Amid concerns about ‘illegals’, economic migrants and welfare dependants, the Australian government prevents boats from entering our waters. The US Immigration Office announced that under no circumstances would the passengers of the St. Louis be allowed to enter the US. The Australian Immigration and Border Protection Office has announced that anyone seeking to enter Australia by boat, without a visa, will never make Australia home.
While some passengers of the St. Louis were resettled in Britain, many were sent back to Europe and became victims of extermination. Some took their own lives in preference to facing the horrors ahead. It doesn’t appear to bother the Australian government what happens to those who are prevented from reaching Australia, or are who returned from our shores. There is no regard for those who are towed back in their boats or returned in large, orange, expensive lifeboats. There is no welfare monitoring program for those who are involuntarily flown back to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where there is evidence of genocide. A Tamil man in Sydney recently decided that setting himself on fire would less horrific than facing his return to Sri Lanka.
The very reason the UN Refugee Convention was written, was to prevent situations like the St. Louis from reoccurring. The world said, “This must never happen again”, and Australia agreed, and signed that Convention.
“No country, including the United States, did as much as it might have or should have done to save innocent victims of Nazi persecution – Jews, Gypsies, political opponents and others. Restrictive US immigration policies kept hundreds of thousands of refugees from finding safety in the United States, most tragically exemplified by our refusal to allow the St. Louis to dock with its cargo of refugees – many of whom perished when the ship was forced to return to Europe.” (Stuart Eizenstat, US Undersecretary of State, 1998)
HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING? What will history will say of Australia’s immigration policies? How many voyages of the damned will Australia be responsible for?