Three Cheers for Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are  angry with the Jordanian United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.   No one will be surprised by this. Neither newspaper is a fan of  the United Nations.  They don’t like ‘human rights’ – a spurious PC concept that foreigners are always trying to foist upon us.  And they especially don’t like it whenever some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner whose name doesn’t even sound like John Smith has the temerity to criticize the xenophobia, racism and bigotry that sticks to the fingers of anyone who opens the pages of Britain’s grubby tabloid press.

The reason for their anger was an interview with the Guardian yesterday, in which Al Hussein accused some European politicians of descending into ‘xenophobia and outright racism’ in their treatment of refugees.   Al Hussein compared the current rhetoric used by many European governments and the media towards refugees to the 1938 League of Nations Conference at Evian-les-Bains, when various governments refused to take in Jewish refugees from the Nazi Reich on the grounds that they would destabilise their societies and put pressure on their economies.

The UN High Commissioner argued, as many historians have done before him,   that this reluctance inadvertently facilitated the Holocaust, when Hitler opted for extermination rather than expulsion.  These comparisons have sparked ‘outrage’, according to the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.   The Express quotes Tory MP Bill Cash, who says that ‘ Britain took in a huge number of Jews and stood against Hitler. It is not appropriate to use that kind of analogy against those who saved Europe from the kind of abominations that were being perpetrated by Germany.’

The Daily Mail quotes Tory MP Andrew Percy, who is indignant at the notion ‘that the debate around the Syrian issue could in any way be similar to Nazi persecution of the Jews is offensive. This kind of comparison is so overblown and so disgusting it undermines a sensible debate on how to address the migration crisis.’

And Immigration minister James Brokenshire similarly rejects ‘ any characterisation that this country does not have a proud record of welcoming refugees or showing compassion in these circumstances.’

All this indignation wilfully misses the point.     Al Hussein did not accuse the governments at Evian of direct complicity with a genocidal project that had not yet been designed, nor did he argue that refugees coming to Europe were threatened by a new Holocaust.

He pointed out  that the dehumanising language and rhetoric used by some participants at the Evian conference regarding the dangers of ‘saturation’ by Jewish refugees was not that different to contemporary politicians in response to the current refugee crisis, ‘ who can use the excuse of even the smallest community as a threat to the sort of national purity of the state.’

Al Hussein singled out Theresa May’s conference speech as an example of these tendencies.   He also criticized David Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ of refugees this summer and  described Katie Hopkins’s ‘cockroach’ comments as ‘straight out of the language of Julius Streicher in the 1920s – and of course Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda in 1994.’

Al Hussein is not the first person to make such comparisons, but his reference to Evian raises an important issue that is rarely acknowledged in the sour debate on how Europe should respond to its current ‘refugee crisis’.

It was not until the first half of the twentieth century that refugees fleeing war and persecution began to acquire political traction as a category of stateless person with a unique hold on the world’s conscience – a development that was formally codified in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

In theory governments recognized that refugees, unlike ‘economic migrants’ might have exceptional rights to cross international borders without documentation.  But these moral obligations were never universally accepted and were always contingent on immediate circumstances and state priorities.  Sometimes governments have accepted refugees without questions, such as Belgians during World War I, or Hungarians after the 1956 uprising.

At other times governments have tried to evade their moral and legal responsibilities by denigrating and dehumanising refugees to the point when they would no longer have any any obligations towards them.

As Al-Hussein argued, these tendencies were never clearer than in the international response to Jewish refugees in the 1930s.  Most of the 38 delegates at Evian-les-Bains recognized that Jews were being persecuted in Hitler’s Germany and in need of protection, but almost all of them refused to accept any more Jewish refugees.  Some argued that they would undermine their economies; others that too many refugees would foment antisemitism or export  a European ‘racial problem’ to their own countries, as the Australian delegate put it.

Even the Nazis declared it ‘astounding’ that foreign countries criticized Germany’s treatment of Jews, yet refused to accept them.  Britain was no exception.  Politicians like Brokenshire love to refer to Britain’s ‘proud tradition’ of providing sanctuary to refugees, but that tradition has always had limits and contradictions.

During last month’s debate about Syrian refugees the Kindertransport was frequently invoked by politicians as an example of that ‘proud tradition’,  but the parents who were not allowed to enter the UK, or the many other Jews who could not get visas, were rarely mentioned.

The Mail accompanied its article on Al Hussein today with a short column about the Evian Conference on ‘How Britain Abandoned the Jews: Britain Refused to Increase Quota for Refugees.’  That is correct, but one of the reasons why Britain didn’t want more Jewish refugees in the country was because of the coverage of newspapers like the Daily Express and the  Daily Mail.

In March 1933, Lord Beaverbrook’s Express responded to an attempted boycott of German goods in response to Nazi antisemitism with the headline “‘Judea declares war on Germany: Jews of all the world unite in action.’

And on August 20, 1938, just over a month after the Evian conference, on August 20, 1938, the Mail reported:

“‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage . . .” In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalfe, the Old Street magistrate, yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering the country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.’

The Mail might have mentioned that in report on the Tory ‘outrage’ at Al Hussein’s comments.   But it wouldn’t, would it?  Because for the British tabloids and for too many Tory politicians, the only good refugees are the ones who belong to our ‘proud tradition.’

Those in the present are invariably suspect.   And even if, like Jews in the 1930s or Syrians today,  they are considered ‘genuine’ refugees, there will always be too many of them, and there will always be reasons why they shouldn’t come.

And there will always be politicians and newspapers that will use the kind of language that Al Hussein rightly condemned, in order to diminish the humanity of refugees, and justify their exclusion.





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