Migration and xenophobia

Europe's refugee problem, then and now

This is not the first time that Europe has faced a wave of desparate refugees. Nor is it the first time that its response has left a lot to be desired. According to Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the continent should recall its past when considering how to deal with the people who are willing to risk everything crossing the Mediterranean to reach its shores

Earlier this spring, I drove to a beautiful spot on the southern bank of Lake Geneva. My destination was the Hotel Royale in Evian-les-Bains. It was there, in July 1938, that 32 nations met for a shameful discussion that has been virtually airbrushed from our memory.

Convened by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the massive refugee crisis triggered by Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism, the Evian conference was a catastrophe. And its disastrous outcome needs to be recalled in the light of Europe's current migration crisis.

The Evian conference was supposed to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian Jews who were desperate for refuge. Roosevelt believed that only a collective solution could meet the challenge. Hitler, too, hoped that other countries would accept them.

In a speech in Konigsberg that March, he jeered, "I can only hope and expect that the other world which has felt such deep sympathy for these criminals will be generous enough to transform this pity into practical aid. As far as I am concerned we are ready to place our luxury ships at the disposal of these countries for the transportation of these criminals." He had already begun to expel Jews, including by placing them forcibly on ships and sending them to various destinations in the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

Refugees on the Italian–French border (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
No room at the European inn: recently, Italian police ended a sit-in being staged by about 200 refugees at the Italian–French border. They wanted to be granted access to France. In Italy, there are currently about 76,000 migrants in hopelessly overcrowded holding centres. Hundreds of migrants are also camping out at stations in Milan and Rome. Pictured here: refugees near the Italian–French border

Rejected by Europe, North America and Australia

But throughout Europe, the refugees faced rejection. On 6 June 1938, as preparations for the conference were underway, the US State Department received a letter concerning 51 Austrian Jewish refugees stranded on a small boat in the international waters of the Danube. The writer recalled seeing: "the heartrending fate of 51 human beings driven from one frontier to the other. We have gained personal knowledge of the unspeakable misery that has innocently befallen 100,000 inhabitants of Austria."

And yet in Evian the following month, although many European delegations voiced eloquent dismay over the torment experienced by the Jews of Germany and Austria, they were unprepared to take concrete action. The outcome of the meeting was clear: Europe, North America and Australia would not accept significant numbers of these refugees.

In the verbatim record, two words were uttered repeatedly: "density" and "saturation". The European countries were already beset with population "density" and had reached a point of "saturation" – in other words, there was simply no more room at the European inn.

It was an absurd thing to say, of course, in 1938, given the size of Europe's populations today. And it would be an equally ridiculous thing to say now too.

To be sure, the participants in Evian could not have foreseen the Holocaust, or that Europe was being drawn into another devastating war; nonetheless, their lack of moral conscience was breathtaking. Many of the countries that refused to take in suffering refugees were themselves, in due course, occupied and brutalised by the Nazis – and desperate for the compassion that they denied the Jews in July 1938.

The Nazis must have revelled in the knowledge that their virulent anti-Semitism found an echo – sometimes not so faint – in the rest of Europe. They also came to realise that if expulsion was not possible, extermination eventually would be.

The shameful rise of anti-migrant, anti-minority sentiment

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein (photo: UN)
"Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment are again rising across Europe, and we must stop now and reassess precisely where we are," writes Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein (pictured here)

Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment are again rising across Europe, and we must stop now and reassess precisely where we are. A major British tabloid newspaper recently felt it acceptable to allow one of its columnists to call immigrants "cockroaches". Rwanda's Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines used the same word to describe Tutsis in the run-up to the 1994 genocide, as did Julius Streicher's Nazi newspaper "Der Stuermer" to describe Jews. Political leaders across Europe regularly – and shamefully – blame migrants for their national woes.

Attacking migrants or minorities – whether crudely, through language, or more subtly, through policy – is unacceptable everywhere, full stop. When words are formulated with the clear intention of causing harm and violence on national, racial or religious grounds, freedom of expression becomes incitement to hatred, which is prohibited by law. Countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes all European Union members, are bound to uphold it.

And yet Europe's current proposals on migration leave much to be desired. The continent needs to recall its past more sensitively, and be more generous to the desperate people crossing the Mediterranean. Francois Crepeau, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, observed in a recent interview that Europe, Australia and Canada could easily resettle one million Syrian refugees over the next five years, and they could add Eritreans to that list and extend this policy to seven years. So why is Europe proposing to accept a paltry 20,000–40,000 people annually for resettlement?

To the European politician strongly opposed to migration, I suggest that the next time you need hospital treatment, take a look around you: many of the people caring for you have a migrant's tale. And should you quench your thirst with the famous water drawn from Evian-les-Bains, you may wish to reflect on the craven failure of a conference that could have saved so many lives – and on what it can still teach us today.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
© Project Syndicate 2015

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Comments for this article: Europe's refugee problem, then and now

The other side of the argument is that Europe has a strong collective approach in dealing with their so-called unwanted refugees. It is also spurious to argue both against the removal of the Jews from Europe and the validity of the Jewish state in occupied Palestine. How would Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein respond if one of these refugees ended up committing an act of bloody terrorism on European soil? In fact, are these acts justified because of Europe's collective unwillingness to admit every person in the world who made the gigantic and dangerous effort to reach European soil? Would Europe be justified in saying that only people who convert to Christianity will be allowed to settle in Europe? Would Europe be justified in saying that since the Islamic State is happy to accept any Muslim, all unwanted Sunni Muslim refugees will be shipped there and Shia refugees to Iran in the most luxurious ocean liners? If the Sunni/Shia divide is an internal Muslim problem, should the world be forced to accept refugees fleeing from this murderous rampage? And why is Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein arguing for Europe to accept all the millions of refugees instead of argiung to settle the Middle East disputes which are the source of the problem in the first place?

Jake Orkadmon18.07.2015 | 13:05 Uhr

The author is jut another muslim hypocrite, where is the muslim umahh, why are not oher muslim countries stepping up, where is the OIC?????

steve austin05.09.2015 | 03:04 Uhr