The migrant crisis could be the great moral challenge of our lifetimes

Austrian police examine a truck that contained the bodies of 71 migrants (AP)

It is not a good time to be an illegal migrant, if ever it was. Just recently more than 70 have perished on a truck found in Austria and perhaps up to 200 have drowned off the Libyan coast. Both of these are hard stories to read, and difficult stories to think about.

The migrants must know the risks they are taking, given that we live in the internet age, and these stories can be easily accessed in any internet café in Africa or the Middle East. And yet still they come, still they take the risk. The conclusion is inescapable: they are determined to get away from Syria, or Somalia, or wherever, at almost any price. The risk of death, and a terrifying painful death too, is one they are quite prepared to take, both for themselves and their children.

There are of course historical parallels. The ever-invaluable Wikipedia reminds us of the following oft-forgotten fact:

Another wave of 18,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and Poland immigrated to Shanghai in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. Shanghai at the time was an open city and did not have restrictions on immigration, and some Chinese diplomats such as Ho Feng Shan issued ‘protective’ passports and the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara issued transit visas with which refugees could go to Shanghai after a short stay in Japan. …. The total number of Jews entering Shanghai during this period equaled the number of Jews fleeing to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa combined. …. Shanghai was an important safe-haven for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, since it was one of the few places in the world where one didn’t need a visa. However, it was not easy to get there….. By 1941 nearly 20,000 European Jews had found shelter there.

Shanghai was not quite alone in saving lives at that dark period. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, welcomed Jews, though sadly only about 500 made it to safety there.

As for other countries, they kept their doors shut to the vast majority of Jews trying to flee persecution. The result of that we all know. Given the persecution that many face today, are we making the same mistake?

I am aware, of course, that there is a difference between asylum seekers and economic migrants, and that the difference though real is hard to determine. But given the efforts people are making to get away from countries like Syria and Eritrea, are we being too harsh when faced with such desperation?