Written by:
Kitty Melrose

Challenging divisive language against refugees

Read time:
5 minutes

Challenging divisive language against refugees

In January, Holocaust survivor and educator Joan Salter MBE challenged Home Secretary Suella Braverman over the divisive language she used against refugees. A video of the encounter went viral and has been viewed millions of times. In an interview carried out before the BBC-Gary Lineker row, Joan talked to journalist Kitty Melrose about escaping the Nazis, her Holocaust education work, and how language used by politicians can increase hatred and racist violence in society. 

Can you tell us about your escape from Nazi persecution? 

I was born Fanny Zimetbaum in Brussels in 1940 to Polish Jewish parents. Three months later, German forces invaded. The police started rounding up Jewish men and my father was taken and deported. But he managed to jump off a train and go into hiding.

My mother, sister and I were forced to flee to France and then in 1942 we made the dangerous crossing over the Pyrenees to Spain. My father was trained in diamond cutting and paid a guide the remains of our jewellery to take us. 

We were captured at the border by the Spanish police: my mother and I were put in prison and my sister went to a convent. The Vichy government offered safe passage to unaccompanied children to any country that would take us. The UK government refused permission to allow Polish Jewish children into the UK. In 1943 I was put on a boat to America, where my name, my culture, everything was changed. 

I have early memories of that time I thought were dreams. I went to a painting class every Saturday – nowadays it would be called art therapy – and I remember painting a picture of a black, angry sea with a tiny boat on it. 

What happened to your parents? 

It was 1947 when I came home to who I thought was my father, who explained that I was fostered, my parents had survived the war and now lived in England. I said, ‘It’s a big mistake.' 

I was put on a plane to the UK and met by a couple who were strangers to me. My parents were broken in every way, including financially. They had nothing and we lived in a slum. It was the opposite to the life I’d had before. I kept visiting my foster family, trying to be two different people. That happens to displaced people. You always try to fit in and never be who you are. 

How did you eventually fit in? 

It wasn’t a fairy tale reunion with my parents. I started going to a wonderful community centre – in those days called a 'settlement' – in the East End of London, which had a Jewish youth club. At the age of 15, I moved into a room and started working there. The ‘warden’ saw beyond me being a refugee – she saw me as a human being. 

I started a social work diploma and then went to Israel for a year. Up until then I hadn’t wanted to be Jewish because that was everything that was bad and terrible, but in that year I became used to who I was and saw beyond some of the hatred.


‘The ‘warden’ saw beyond me being a refugee – she saw me as a human being.’

Why is it important to speak about your family’s experience during the Holocaust?  

I was in my 40s when I got involved in Holocaust education and it took over my life. I speak to take back the humanity of those who were murdered in my family, but I also hope I instil in people the need not to fall for the propaganda they get and how easily words of division can create hatred. 

That’s why I feel so angry at the way the Home Secretary and the government are dealing with refugees. We must not forget the lessons of the past. 

Can you tell us about your exchange with the Home Secretary? 

I’m not a political activist, I’m an educator. When I confronted the Home Secretary [during a constituency meeting in Fareham] it was to question her use of divisive language against desperate refugees. I explained that when you use terms like ‘swarms’ and an ‘invasion’, I am reminded of the language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others. 

It is dangerous to draw parallels, but the Holocaust ended in the death camps but it started with words – the slow grind of dehumanisation. The Jews were called ‘cockroaches’ in Germany. There was hyperinflation and you can’t blame the people who can’t afford to feed their children so the government blamed this minority. 

When I started my question, her face froze. She refused to apologise and the audience were enthralled as she talked about the problems illegal immigrants apparently cause, the Home Office keeping this country safe and how they have to stop the boats. There were comments from the audience criticising the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for saving refugees and migrants – turning on volunteers who follow the unwritten rule of the sea? That really got my goat. Language matters: unfortunately, some people believe what they hear. 

‘When you use terms like ‘swarms’ and an ‘invasion’, I am reminded of the language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family’

Were you surprised by her response? 

No. I was with campaign organisation Freedom from Torture who filmed it and posted it on Twitter [it has been viewed 24 million times so far]. 

The Home Office demanded the video be taken down. They seem to not realise we are a democracy and it is not the Home Office’s role to be the mouthpiece for the Home Secretary. 

What solutions do you hope for? 

I’m not pretending we don’t have problems in this country, but we need to implement safe routes for people fleeing persecution, conflict and torture to come here. We need to stop punishing those who take dangerous routes. 

When you use this kind of language, you dehumanise people simply seeking safety, rather than try to help or understand them. It distracts from finding real solutions to their suffering. Blaming and scapegoating spreads hate and we must remember where that can lead. I know most people want refugees to be treated with dignity.

This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in the spring issue of Amnesty Magazine, which is produced by Amnesty International UK. Although the interview was conducted before the Gary Lineker row, Joan has since defended the Match of Day presenter’s comments about the government’s Illegal Migration Bill.

Photo © Freedom from Torture

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust

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