4.2 Refugee Politics in Europe

This exercise contains information about the historical event known as the Evian Conference. By the end of the activity you will have developed your understanding of contemporary issues and human rights, including how we view newcomers today.

What to do?

Read the fact sheet and do the exercises that follow.

Call for an International Conference

There were roughly 65 million people living in Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933.  Less than one per cent were Jews. Soon after their takeover, the Nazis started to pass laws and regulations that made life increasingly difficult for the Jewish minority, so hard that a substantial number of Jews felt that they had no choice but to leave the country.

The situation for the Jews of Germany and Austria (which was annexed by Germany in 1938) was no secret to the rest of the world. There were constant reports and there was much to read in the newspapers of Europe and the USA.

An example was the editorial of the New York Times on 4 July 1938 which highlighted ”the unrelieved tragedy” of German and Austrian Jews who “have no alternative but exile”. The newspaper urged the American government to help Jewish refugees, and not let Germany get away with its policy of ”extermination”.

Many were worried about the situation and US President Franklin D Roosevelt took the step of setting up an international conference over the situation of the Jews.

The Evian Conference

The Evian Conference was held in July 1938 in Évian-les-Bains, France. In total, there were representatives from 32 countries. An important part of the conference were discussions concerning what could be done for German and Austrian Jews, and what steps the various countries could take to let in more refugees.

Many of the countries that took part already had quotas covering the number of refugees they would let in. Yet since the situation was so urgent there were hopes that the quotas could be substantially raised. But the conference ended on a completely different note. Of all of the participating countries, only the tiny Dominican Republic in the Caribbean offered to temporarily take in roughly 10 000 Jews. The remaining countries claimed that economic circumstances meant that they couldn’t let in any more people. They argued that more refugees in each country would lead to high unemployment and, furthermore, that more Jews in each country would result in more antisemitism.

After the failed conference it became clear that the Jews of Germany and Austria had nowhere to flee to – this in a situation where the Nazis’ persecution was getting harsher and harsher.   square.jpg

Delegates of the Evian Conference.

Statements of the Leaders

Below you’ll find some of the statements made by leaders of some of the countries involved.

France and Great Britain argued that they had already taken plenty of refugees and concluded that they  didn’t have room for any more.

Representatives from Belgium and the Netherlands claimed that their countries were so densely populated that there wasn’t space for Jewish refugees.

Australia announced that they didn’t have any “racial problems” at the time and that they weren’t interested in importing one by encouraging Jewish immigration.

Sweden explained through its head delegate Gösta Engzell that the country’s opportunities to help with the  Jewish refugees in Europe were very small.


Answer the questions

  • 4.2.a What do you make of the arguments used by some of the countries that they couldn’t let in Jews (divided across the countries it would have been roughly 19 000 people per country)?

  • 4.2.b People are still fleeing war and persecution today. Have you heard arguments from politicians or other people in recent debates that seem similar to those of the 1930s? Give examples.

  • 4.2.c What could the world’s countries have done in 1938 and what can they do today to help people who are fleeing war, persecution and chaos?