Human rights chief condemns language such as ‘swarms of refugees’, saying it is deployed by those seeking to make political capital from the crisis
The dehumanising language used by UK and other 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, the UN’s most senior human rights official has warned.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, described Europe’s response to the crisis as amnesiac and “bewildering”. Although he did not mention any British politicians by name, he said the use of terms such as “swarms of refugees” were deeply regrettable.
In July, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, referred to migrants in Calais as a “swarm of people”. At this month’s Conservative party conference, the home secretary, Theresa May, was widely criticised for suggesting that mass migration made it “impossible to build a cohesive society”.
In an interview, 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 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.”
Although the high commissioner praised the British government’s decision to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees between now and 2020, he said much more needed to be done. He pointed to the suggestion made by François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human right of migrants, that rich European countries should agree a plan to take 1 million refugees from Syria over the next five years.
Zeid added that his country, Jordan, had taken in more than 650,000 refugeesfrom Syria and Iraq while 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.”
The high commissioner also condemned the UK government’s proposal “to scrap” the Human Rights Act, saying it would send “a very negative signal” and could undermine Britain’s position as a permanent member of the UN security council.
“One mustn’t forget the United Kingdom has a privileged status in the UN security council,” he said.
“If we begin to cherry-pick which laws we like in the human rights law domain, one could easily see a migration of risk downstream to international law more generally. Others may say, ‘Well, if you’re going to cherry-pick international law, we’ll decide which resolutions issued by the security council we wish to abide by and which we don’t.’ The resolutions of the security council are binding – as is human rights law.”
However, Zeid also insisted that responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights extended far beyond politics, accusing some in the media of fomenting the idea that migrants pose “a grave threat to the security of the country” and were not to be trusted.
“In a modern, democratic society, you expect that there will always be some voices reflecting opinions in the extreme and my office of course supports the right to express your views as freely as you can and as wide a [breadth] should be given to that as possible,” he said.
“But 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 said he had felt compelled to criticise the Sun newspaper this year, 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 – and of course, Radio [Télévision Libre des] Mille Collines in Rwanda in 1994”.
Of Hopkins, who recently announced she was leaving the Sun for Mail Online, he said: “I don’t know whether she has repeated these remarks – I hope not. I believe every human being has a capacity to learn from their mistakes. Let’s hope that she has.”