A migrant has two countries – the one they left behind and their new country. As I experience the underlying sense of being split, having two homes, but belonging in neither, my thoughts go to refugees, who did not make the choice of leaving their first countries entirely out of free will. What sort of belonging to place do they experience?
I have been reading Bent Blüdnikow’s Min fars flugt – Jødiske skæbner i oktober 1943 (My father’s escape – Jewish people’s fate in October 1943, Berlingske, 2013) about the plight of Danish Jews during the second world war. Until 29 August 1943, the Danish government had a policy of cooperation and Jew’s in Denmark were not experiencing the persecution occuring across occupied Europe. Most of the Danish Jews lived in Copenhagen – 1,673 families, with only 33 families outside Copenhagen. But there were also more than 1,200 German Jews who came up from Germany and about 110 families who no longer were practising Jews. Jews in Denmark went about life like they always had and, according to Blüdnikow’s book, many dismissed as fanciful the stories of genocide and persecution that reached them from Europe.
But from the time the ‘state of emergency’ was declared in late August 1943 and the Danish government was replaced by German military rule, this changed dramatically. In early October, the Germans instituted the Danish ‘Jew Action’ (All Jews out of Denmark) with the aim of sending Danish Jews to Theresienstadt in Poland. This became fate for too many Danish Jews, but as a result of the Danish community banding together to support people in desparate need, about 7,000 Jews crossed the narrow sound, Øresund, from Helsingør (Elsingore of Hamlet’s Castle) to Helsingborg in neutral Sweden in those frightening days of October 1943.
They were boat people, many having paid handsome sums to Danish fishermen and boat owners. Blüdnikow describes the desparation of ten scared people, including a one-year-old child, in a small and leaky rowing boat. The boat capsized, three of the ten drowned, the baby very nearly drowned. The remaining seven were picked up by a dregder whose Germany-sympathising skipper refused to take them to Sweden, instead bringing them back to the Danish coast. Here they received hospital care, subversively, and were helped to another, this time successful, crossing where they were picked up by Swedish authorities as they reached Swedish territory.
As I read about the young mother in shock, the despair and the understandable distrust of Swedish authorities; people who have lost everything, including family – received with open arms into a country that simply made arrangements to meet their basic needs and help them fit into society, I think about how 70 years later my new country treats people who arrive to our shores by boat. I think of allegations that the Australian Navy ordered people in open sea onto another already overcrowded boat and sent them back toward Indonesia. And I think of how we treat refugees who miraculously make it to our shore via boat – detained for months on end with little regard for their mental health. If more than 70 years ago the Swedes had treated the Danish boat people in a similar way, this would surely have broken the spirit of the Danish Jews. As it were, some of the boat people who fled Denmark to Sweden later became well-known people in public life in Denmark.
In my new home country, I find it difficult to understand how a wealthy, well-informed and well-educated community can find ourselves endorsing a policy of successive governments that plays on our insecurities (border protection, stop the boats, illegal arrivals) to allow shocking treatment of human beings at their weakest and most desparate – who are trying to do what we are all are: make the best life for ourselves and our families.
I am proud of what the Danes did. And I am glad Sweden’s policy was not like Australia’s. Even if there were German-leaning elements of the Danish – and Swedish – community, there was a humanity, trust and bravery that overcame bad policy and managed to save at least some of the persecuted. I look forward to the day when I can be proud about Australia’s actions toward vulnerable asylum seekers.