HISTORY IS MORE than an exercise in memorizing dates. It’s a way of understanding the present by what has happened in the past.
In 1939, 17 German police battalions were deployed to Poland after Germany had invaded its neighbor. One of the battalions, Battalion 101 from Hamburg, went on to be one of the most brutal groups in the Nazi Holocaust. The battalion was directly responsible for the execution of 83,000 Jews and others, including the largest single execution of 43,000 over two days. The battalion also guarded Jewish ghettos in Poland, and oversaw the deportation to death camps to hundreds of thousands.
But Battalion 101 started out as an ordinary German police battalion, sent to provide security in the occupied Poland. One of Battalion 101’s first actions causing harm was to take Jewish children in Poland from their parents, after which the children were sent to Germanization camps. From this first small atrocity, other atrocities, much larger, followed.
Now this year, in 2018, on Christmas Day, we learned of another migrant child, an eight-year-old child from Guatemala, who died while incarcerated by the U.S. Border Services. It is the second child this month to die in detention. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, there are 15,000 migrant children currently in detention in the US. Rather than providing protection for children seeking asylum, the U.S. is punishing them by incarcerating them.
There are parallels between the incarceration of migrant children in the U.S., and first actions of the Battalion 101 in taking Jewish children from their families and sending them to Germanization camp. Both are small atrocities.
History teaches us that small atrocities can lead to larger ones.
But it also shows how there are times when humanity and compassion rule the day. History shows us that diverse countries can work together to strengthen humanity.
World War II left large parts of Europe and East Asia in ruins. After the war, nations could have isolated themselves from others. Instead, in 1945, nations came together to form the United Nations (UN). Then, in 1948, 50 nations met to draft the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
From that first declaration, many others followed, including the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975), Declaration on the Human Rights of Individuals Who are not Nationals of the Country in Which They Live (1986) and New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (2016).
Again and again, the countries of the United Nations (including Canada) have tried to ensure the most vulnerable have basic protections.
So while the treatment of migrants in the United States worsens, the migrants have not been forgotten.
Even as the United States government works to incarcerate and deport migrants, there are aid groups within and outside the U.S. working to help migrants. Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) U.S.A. is advocating for the rights of child migrants in detention in the United States.
Save the Children is vocally opposing family separation and detention. Human Rights Watch sheds light on the U.S.’s practise of turning back unaccompanied minors at their borders. Unicef, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch work hard to ensure the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is upheld.
The desire to uphold human rights asserts itself again and again.
In remembering nine-year-old Felipe Alónzo-Gomez from Guatemala, who died in US detention on Christmas Day, let’s hope that other migrant children in U.S. detention will be kept safer by those very UN declarations put in place to protect him. Let’s hope the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights keeps today’s small atrocities from becoming larger atrocities.
Nancy Bepple is a former city councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.