The Magazine

Bring Them Home

From the June 6, 2005 issue: Why South Korea should open its doors to refugees from the North.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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IN RECENT DECADES, more than one constitutional democracy has been faced with the prospect of a humanitarian crisis afflicting compatriots living beyond its borders. And on more than one occasion, such states have come to the rescue of their countrymen--by welcoming them into the homeland, embracing them as fellow citizens, and permitting them to enjoy the opportunities and benefits of life under secure, constitutional and democratic rule.

The Federal Republic of Germany faced such a crisis in the very earliest days of its existence, when the ethnic Germans who came to be called Vertriebene--most of them women and children--were fleeing from the harsh and vindictive Soviet expansion. West Germany welcomed these unfortunates, even though it was not clear that the still-devastated German economic terrain could provide for all these new mouths. Accommodating this influx of needy refugees--a population of over 11 million, disproportionately made up of the elderly, the infirm, and casualties of war--was more than an incidental inconvenience for a then-fragile West German society, where semi-starvation rations were the norm. Informed opinion, both in West Germany and abroad, held that the prospects for the Vertriebene were bleak--and that the burden of supporting them could only compromise the future of a free Germany. Yet in the event, the miserable unfortunates who flooded into the Federal Republic were soon to prove integral to what became known as the Wirtschaftswunder--the German postwar economic "miracle."

As West Germany flourished, the Federal Republic not only continued to welcome in its kinsmen, but sought them out, financing their transit and even purchasing their freedom from the odious dictatorships that held them in bondage. In addition to the Vertriebene, the Federal Republic of Germany was to absorb another 8 million ethnic German Aussiedler (from the former Soviet Union, Poland, and elsewhere) in the four decades between the early 1950s and the German nation's ultimate reunification.

The state of Israel also has faced recurrent humanitarian refugee crises. Hapless, impoverished, and persecuted Jewish populations figured all too prominently within the worldwide Jewish diaspora. From the very founding of the Israeli state in 1948, the government of Israel made a point not only to welcome these Jews into their country with open arms, but also actively to seek them out, and to aid in their passage to their promised land.

Particularly dramatic mass rescue efforts were organized for the endangered Jews of Yemen, and then, decades later, for the starving Beta Israel (Jews sometimes called Falasha) from Ethiopia. These bold and successful air missions are recorded by history as "Operation Flying Carpet," "Operation Moses," "Operation Solomon," and "Operation Sheba." In an inconstant and often heartless world, their inspiring example has demonstrated the potential of humanitarian rescue if a free society is genuinely committed to serving as "its brother's keeper."

Those stirring Israeli rescue missions, it is worth noting, raised their own concerns and questions among the populace receiving the desperate pilgrims. The impoverished and benighted Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia were utter strangers to modernity. Most of them could not read; many of them had never owned a pair of shoes; some had never seen an airplane until the moment of their deliverance. How could such people stand a chance of meeting the challenges of life in a sophisticated industrial society?

Today we know the answer. The story of Yemeni and Ethiopian assimilation into modern Israeli society was not perfect--tales involving human beings never are. With the passage of time, nevertheless, integration has worked remarkably well--far better than many would have dared to hope. The Yemeni and Ethiopian refugees and their descendants are loyal and productive citizens in their newfound homeland--proud supporters of Israeli democracy and participants in the Israeli economy. Moreover, by this loving gesture to "the least of her people," Israel's democracy was itself further affirmed and further strengthened.

Today, it is the Republic of Korea that faces a humanitarian crisis among exiled compatriots. This is a terrible saga, an ongoing tragedy. It is not "breaking news," nor has it exactly escaped international notice. Quite the contrary: Over the past decade, this piteous situation has been chronicled in practically every tongue (all the languages of the United Nations, at the very least). But let me recount it anyway.