When we discovered in 1945 the atrocities that reigned during the Holocaust, we pledged: “Never again.” Now we have a chance to act on that promise. A recent report from scholar Adrian Zenz revealed the horrifying reality that Chinese officials are attempting to suppress the population of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, by routinely forcing birth control and sterilization measures on Uighur women.
This month, the United States seized an $800,000 shipment of hair products made with human hair — which some national security experts suspect come from Chinese forced labor camps, where between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs have been imprisoned.
This is an outrage. But it presents a dilemma that our nation has already faced, and we chose to fail humanity.
From the onset of the Holocaust, Americans were aware of the violent oppression of Jews. After all, German officials certainly weren’t trying to hide it. During a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish goods and businesses in 1933, German officials even printed signs in both German and English, knowing the American press was watching. American newspapers published thousands of articles between 1933 and 1945 on the plight of European Jews. By 1942, Americans knew the Nazis planned to “exterminate” at least 4 million Jews, thanks to a leaked telegram obtained by the World Jewish Congress in Geneva.
But the United States didn’t respond strongly enough. Americans themselves were the ones who organized boycotts of German goods, sent petitions to the federal government and held rallies protesting Nazi actions against Jews. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke publicly and sympathetically about the ongoing oppression. President Roosevelt condemned the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938 and issued a public declaration condemning the Nazis’ “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of the Jews.
We could have done so much more.
We didn’t address immigration quotas, which prevented us from welcoming most refugees. We didn’t officially support resistance efforts until 1944, after millions of Jews had already been murdered. We didn’t even heed pleas to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, because it would have diverted resources from the war effort.
The United States prioritized other issues — economic recovery and winning the war — over addressing a humanitarian crisis. It’s the same reason that, despite our knowing about China’s oppression of the Uighur people for years, the American government’s response action has been terribly milquetoast. In 2018, President Trump even delayed a 2018 Treasury Department plan to impose sanctions on Chinese officials connected to Uighur oppression, hoping to preserve a trade deal with China.
Many Americans, for their part, have expressed horror at the Uighurs’ oppression. We’ve heard testimony from Uighurs who have escaped the “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, and we’ve seen satellite photos obtained by the BBC that have confirmed the group’s plight. The disgust with China’s measures even led to the Trump administration placing sanctions on Chinese business and government organizations connected to the crackdown on the Uighurs in 2019.
Last month, Mr. Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which finally imposed additional sanctions on those responsible for China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also denounced Chinese actions against the Uighurs multiple times, and did so as recently as last week. These are all commendable moves, but they’re still not enough.
To actually help the Uighurs, we must give them a place to hide.
Back in 1939, a bill to admit 20,000 refugee children fleeing Europe received support from many Americans, including then-former President Hoover, but it died in the House before coming to a vote. In 1943, Treasury Department staff discovered that “State Department officials had deliberately suppressed reports about the murder of Jews.”
In response, President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board in January 1944. The institution saved tens of thousands of Jews. But it came too late for the millions who had already perished — by the time Allied forces landed at Normandy, more than 5 million Jews had already been murdered.
The United States could very well be repeating history. Last fall, the Trump administration slashed our refugee program, declaring we’d only be accepting 18,000 refugees total for the next year. Even if most of those available slots were reserved for Uighurs, it would deny an opportunity for hundreds of thousands more to escape. But we could very easily have a policy allowing Uighurs a special exemption from that refugee cap, or even raise that cap altogether.
If China continues to accelerate its oppressive actions against the ethnic group, a moral United States must prioritize easing their suffering with stronger action. Evil of this scale demands a response greater than sporadic statements and limited sanctions. We should know it already — when a million people are suffering in concentration camps, we’re already way behind.
• Amy Lutz is a historian and graduate student in Missouri specializing in Holocaust Studies. She is also a contributor to Young Voices and you can find her on Twitter at @amylutz4.
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