“We can’t possibly handle the influx.”
“It has nothing to do with us.”
It’s become common to hear statements like these from my fellow Europeans talking about the terrible crisis facing refugees from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. These attitudes are shocking, and are usually based on exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
It’s true that, according to UN statistics, the world is seeing the highest number of people displaced by conflict since the Second World War.
Over 100,000 people tried to reach Europe this July alone. This situation is an explosive and frightening challenge — but that doesn’t excuse racist cynicism or the hypocrisy of governments that choose to ignore the severity of the humanitarian catastrophe.
European countries are not living up to the challenge and leaders are often embracing hateful rhetoric. Recently an E.U. proposal for various countries to institute quotas of refugees was flatly rejected by many of the richer member states.
“European countries are dragging their feet,” says Bill Frelick the head of Human Rights Watch’s migration program. “You have to begin to wonder if there is some intentionality to having poor reception conditions as a way of discouraging people from staying and hoping they will move on to other countries.”
Greece faces the most dire economic situation within the Euro-Zone, and also faces the largest number of arrivals from conflict zones. By referendum the Greeks rejected austerity measures that were proposed by the European Union under the principal that Greece would have to “pull it’s weight” in Europe. The austerity demands were made under the principal of sharing economic burdens. But at the same time, large E.U. states are refusing to share the burden of smaller countries like Greece on migrant issues.
There have been no meaningful offers of help from countries like France and the U.K. — countries that demanded Greece drastically alter its way of life under the principle of economic cooperation.
A Seattleite on the ground in Greece
Jennifer Butte-Dahl is a former U.S. State Department official who now works at the Jackson School of International Studies at UW. She’s currently on the Greek island of Lesbos working with the U.K. based charity Shelterbox to provide temporary shelters for new arrivals.
“The setting here is surreal,” Butte-Dahl told me via email. “On one side of the harbor is a beautiful island village, full of shops and bustling cafe. Yachts and sailboats anchor nearby, and tourists in beachwear roam the streets. Walk around the corner approximately 500 meters and you’ll find the Port of Mytilini, where new arrivals wait in long lines to register with police before waiting again to secure ferry tickets to take them to Athens and beyond. At night they camp out at the Port, in local parks, or in one of three camps that have been designated to accommodate waiting families.”
Butte-Dahl describes the general situation in Greece as particularly dire for arrivals:
“UNHRC reports 181,000 new arrivals into Greece alone since the start of 2015. In Lesbos, which is currently receiving the highest numbers of all the Greek islands, 80,000 are expected to have arrived by end of August, with another 80,000 expected each month through October. That is between 2,000-3,000 new arrivals each day. These numbers are unprecedented. Local and international responders are in triage mode as the system and facilities in place for the last few years, when numbers were as low as 100 per month, are crumbling under the pressure.”
In the absence of sufficient government resources, a number of aide organizations have joined local volunteers in providing assistance. According to Butte-Dahl many locals are quite supportive, though there have been some tensions as well.
Frelick believes the situation in Greece is indicative of a broader lack of cooperation between nations.
“There is a real problem with a lack of equitable burden sharing among the EU member states and lack of solidarity and trust among the member states,” he says. “It’s really becoming each state for itself putting up fences and militarizing their borders. Creating deterrents to try and dissuade people from staying in their country.”
Italy is far less wealthy than France or the U.K., yet the Italian navy continues to carry much of the weight of rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Frelick describes the rescue situation:
“The critics said [the rescue operation] was a magnet and “pull factor” attracting people to take dangerous voyages. Operation Mare Nostrum ended in November of 2014 and during the next few months when supposedly there wasn’t a “pull factor” the number of people leaving Libya for Europe stayed the same and may have actually grown. The number that were dying at sea grew as well. It proved that despite the claim that rescue at sea was causing more people to leave, when the rescue at sea was taken away they kept coming.
In 2015 E.U. ministers held an emergency meeting because of horrific large scale drownings and expanded the multinational operation Triton, which has upped the resources to prevent large scale loss of life.”
Despite Italy’s willingness to commit its resources to rescue operations, the government complains that other E.U. states have failed to help adequately.
Public perception of the European refugee crisis
Camps have sprung up across France, with the encampments in the city of Calais being particularly stressed as new arrivals try to flee to England through the Channel Tunnel. Many of these camps have living conditions that are not up to UN standards but, according to Frelick, incidents involving migrants have been overplayed by local media.
“There is a tendency because we live in a 24/7 media world that we put a huge focus on a situation like Calais or other places where there are clashes or drama taking place,” he says. “Without recognizing that as bad as Calais is it involves two or three thousand people when there are around 340,000 that have enterd the E.U. this year. It’s a minuscule percentage”.
Despite Europe’s unease at the immigrant influx, tiny Lebanon and Jordan as well as much larger Turkey have taken in millions of arrivals, in comparison to the small percentage of asylum seekers that Europe has taken. Frelick posits that geography is not the only factor and that recent history affects the attitude towards refugees in Lebanon.
“Perhaps part of the reason why there has been a greater level of sympathy in Lebanon is because people remember their own civil war and they can remember when many Lebanese were fleeing the country,” he says “They are dealing with something on the order of a fifth to a quarter of their population is refugees. Their political situation, demographic balance, and their economy are all far more precarious than any European state, yet they have for the most part been accepting and wiling to take refugees”
In an inspiring exception to the European norm, little Sweden has taken more asylum applications than France and England combined. Many Swedes see this as a point of national pride — and they should.
“Refugees can over time help to stimulate economies and create a situation where in some cases you do have shrinking populations and you do have economic needs,” Frelick points out “My understanding is that we shouldn’t be looking at this in a knee jerk way that these people are automatically a drain. I think it is realistic to say that in a crisis it is going to be costly but over the long term that is not necessarily the case.”
A frightening backlash
The situation of refugees crossing the Mediterranean is so atrocious that Pope Francis frequently begs the nations of Europe to do much more than they are. It’s strange to live in a world where the Pope is the voice of pluralism and mercy while the democratically elected leaders of Europe indulge the rhetoric of superstition and sectarianism.
Even mainstream European politicians have begun using hateful rhetoric. David Cameron recently commented that he shares the views of his foreign secretary Phllip Hammond about the threat of “marauding migrants.”
“There is some unfortunate rhetoric coming form leaders who ought to be choosing their words more carefully,” Frelick says. “The question here is what are you trying to accomplish through that kind of rhetoric. Ultimately there are questions about weather your rhetoric dehumanizes people as a way of justifying not treating them with human decency?”
German racists have predicted a wave of attacks by foreigners in Germany, which has yet to materialize. Instead we have seen a wave of racist attacks against migrants by German far right elements.
The German movement “Pergida“(Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) has embraced hateful rhetoric and holds frequent rallies against the “Islamization” of Germany in Dresden. Ironically in the German state of Saxony where Dresden is located, less than 1% of the population is Muslim. It would seem this is another case of scapegoating.
Migrants or refugees?
Frelick and others have begun to balk at the common labelling of these masses of people fleeing to Europe as “migrants,” arguing that they are in fact refugees.
“There were virtually no asylum seekers from Syria prior to 2011. They weren’t coming to Europe,” he says. “Now its close to like 90% of those coming from Turkey to Greece. These are enormous numbers of people that are coming for a reason, they are fleeing conflict and they are fleeing violence.”
The neglect of this issue by most European governments is already a costly mistake, and there seems to be a taboo on discussing practical and humanitarian solutions in most European parliaments.
The Royal Navy had a policy of rescuing German sailors from ships they sank in World War Two. Even when the U.K. was on the verge of defeat and was facing hunger due to German bombardments and blockade, they would at least try to save their enemies from the water. Surely things are not so dire for contemporary Europe? Surly women and children are worth saving?
Frelick thinks that anti-immigrant rhetoric shows a lack of vision and understanding of history.
“The first refugees I ever met were Hungarians. When I didn’t finish my peas and carrots my parents would say ‘think of the starving refugees in Europe,'” he recalls. “Now the irony is that Hungry is building a fence and is taking measures to prevent refugees form entering its borders. This shouldn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to think about their parents and grandparents who themselves were fleeing the country.”
There are some politicians in Europe who have stepped up and challenged the apathy of their governments.
David Winnik, a courageous British member of parliament publicly challenged the policy of the U.K. refusing to rescue migrants:
“This policy can be explained in three words ‘let them drown.'”
This story has been updated since it was first published.