The United Nations human rights chief has called on Britain to tackle hate speech in the tabloid press after a prominent columnist compared migrants to "cockroaches" and advocated using gunboats to stop them from coming to Europe.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement on Friday that Katie Hopkins' article, published a week ago by the The Sun newspaper, was an extreme example of anti-foreigner articles that frequently appeared in UK tabloids, sapping compassion for refugees and asylum seekers drowning in the Mediterranean in the desperate attempt to reach Europe.

Hussein said that comparing people to the insect was reminiscent of language used in Nazi propaganda and by Rwandan media to incite hatred against Tutsis in the run-up to the 1994 genocide.

“The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches,” said Hussein.

He called on Britain and other EU countries to act against racism and xenophobia which "under the guise of freedom of expression, are being allowed to feed a vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicisation of migrants".

"The Sun’s editors took an editorial decision to publish this article, and - if it is found in breach of the law – should be held responsible along with the author," Hussein said.

But such language, he added, was typical of "decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion" when it came to the reporting of migrant and refugee issues in British media.

Britain's Metropolitan Police said Hopkins' article had received complaints that it amounted to incitement of racial hatred and the matter was being considered.

'Plague of feral humans'

Headlined "Rescue boats? I'd use gunships to stop migrants", Hopkins' column described migrants as "a plague of feral humans" and "a norovirus" and said drilling a few holes in the bottom of their boats would be a good idea.

"Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care," Hopkins wrote.

The day after the column was published, up to 900 people drowned when their boat capsised trying to reach Italy from Libya. Nearly 2,000 migrants have died so far this year out of nearly 40,000 trying to make the crossing.

The independent press regulator, IPSO, said it had received more than 300 complaints about the article and was investigating whether it had breached an ethics code for editors.

An online petition calling for Hopkins to resign has been signed by 280,000 people, while a separate petition calling for her to be charged has gathered 28,000 signatures.

In a new column on Friday, Hopkins thanked The Sun for "letting me speak my mind" but said the outrage her article had caused was "a cautionary tale".

Source: Agencies