Learning from the Holocaust to address today’s refugee situation

Arrival of Jewish refugees, London
Arrival of Jewish refugees, London
International Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January is always a time to remember how we can learn useful lessons from the past and apply them to the world around us today in order to promote human rights protection, and a culture of belonging and respect for diversity. The current refugee situation is a case in point.

The Holocaust and World War 2 created millions of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people. Many sought refuge, escaping war and persecution. Many were skilled professionals and many were children. There are parallels to the situation today where the number of displaced people has again reached the same levels; currently it stands at over 65 million people worldwide.

The policy of antisemitism and targeting other victims by the Nazi regime led to increasing numbers of refugees in Europe fleeing to find sanctuary elsewhere. Then, as can be seen in some places today, there was reluctance on the part of governments to find solutions. This is why in 1938, the Evian Conference was convened to seek commitments from other countries to accept more Jewish refugees. Sadly, it resulted in almost no change in the immigration policies in most of the attending nations. It was only after the war that the development of international standards on refugee protection really took off.

Back then, a culture of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping and fear of refugees developed, fueled by an economic crisis and populist rhetoric by those in power. Shades of this can be found today underlining the perils of racism, hate and indifference.

Learning from the Holocaust gives us the benefit of hindsight to be in a better place to help refugees today. It points to the importance of promoting and safeguarding human rights, such as equality and the protection of minorities. It shows what was done in the past to help refugees such as the ‘Kindertransport’ initiative that brought thousands of unaccompanied children to the UK. It also humanises the plight of refugees escaping tyranny.

There are many other examples of how we can apply lessons learnt from the experiences of refugees before, during and after the Holocaust to the current situation. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which FRA is a partner, has a useful blog called ‘Seeking protection’ which explores many of these lessons. FRA’s has also developed online training material for teaching about fundamental rights and the Holocaust to public officials, which also looks explicitly at refugees during the Holocaust and the impact of the Evian conference.

The aftermath of World War 2 led to a vast array of human right instruments which countries around the world have since signed up to and to the development of the current human rights infrastructure. Holocaust Memorial Day is therefore a time to remember the past and look to the future.