The dehumanising language used by many European politicians to debate the refugee crisis has echoes of the pre-second world war rhetoric with which the world effectively turned its back on German and Austrian Jews and helped pave the way for the Holocaust, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s most senior human rights official has warned.
He described Europe’s response to the crisis as amnesiac and “bewildering and said the use of terms such as “swarms of refugees” were deeply regrettable.
The high commissioner said the language surrounding the issue reminded him of the 1938 Evian conference, when countries including the US, the UK and Australia refused to take in substantial numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s annexation of Austria on the grounds that they would destabilise their societies and strain their economies. Their reluctance, Zeid added, helped Hitler to conclude that extermination could be an alternative to deportation. Three-quarters of a century later, he said, the same rhetoric was being deployed by those seeking to make political capital out of the refugee crisis. “It’s just a political issue that is being ramped up by those who can use the excuse of even the smallest community as a threat to the sort of national purity of the state,” he said. “If you just look back to the Evian conference and read through the intergovernmental discussion, you will see that there were things that were said that were very similar. Indeed, at the time, the Australian delegate said that if Australia accepted large numbers of European Jews they’d be importing Europe’s racial problem into Australia. I’m sure that in later years, he regretted that he ever said this – knowing what happened subsequently – but this is precisely the point. If we cannot forecast the future, at least we have the past as a guide that should wisen us, alert us to the dangers of using that rhetoric.”
Asked whether he believed that the UK home secretary, Theresa May would also come to regret her choice of words, Zeid added: “Closer examination of history and a closer examination of what happened in Europe in the early part of the 20th century should make people think very carefully about what it is that they’re saying. These are human beings: even in the use of the word migrants, somehow it’s as if they don’t have rights. They all have rights just as we have rights.” Zeid went on to say some European politicians had descended into “xenophobia and in some cases outright racism”. He said: “One wonders what has happened to Europe. Why is there so much amnesia? Why don’t they properly distil from their experience that they’ve been down this road before and it’s a very unhappy road if you continue to follow it.”
Zeid also accused some in the media of fomenting the idea that migrants pose “a grave threat to the security of the country… when the media begins to fan such opinions, I think we have to be very careful about where this may lead and again we’ve had past experiences in Europe’s most recent history which leave us very worried.” He felt compelled to criticise the Sun newspaper after its columnist Katie Hopkins described migrants as “cockroaches” because the word was “straight out of the language of [Nazi publisher] Julius Streicher in the 1920s…”