Part Three: Unity in Diversity
Since the turmoil following the Arab Spring forced millions of people to flee from war and persecution, Greece and Italy have been the main entry points for thousands of people to the EU. The EU’s efforts to put pressure on Greece, including the threat of suspending Greece from the Schengen area in order to stop the influx of migrants and refugees, has only created bitter friction between Greece and the EU. Italy’s call for solidarity has at best received a divided and reluctant response from member states and further highlighted the divisions between the Commission and the Italian government. These deep-seated disagreements over a common response to the crisis among member states have forced the EU to seek a solution beyond its borders by making new agreements with countries on its Eastern borders.
Last week, the treatment of refugees took a new catastrophic turn in Europe. While the EU Council President Donald Tusk was visiting the Balkan capitals and Ankara, 13,000-14,000 refugees were trapped at the Greece-Macedonia border. When thousands of refugees including children, started to protest the border restrictions applied by Macedonia and blocked the railways, the Macedonian police used teargas and stun grenades. The Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has warned that the number of people stuck on the Greek side of the border might reach to 50,000-70,000 next month.
The reason for the new situation is the unilateral decisions of some Balkan countries and Austria to limit daily refugee crossings. Austria now allows 3,200 crossings from the Balkans, while limiting asylum applications to 80 per day. Macedonia lets only 500 people enter from Greece and Afghan nationals are denied entry to the country. Similarly, Croatia capped the daily crossings at 580, while Albania declared that it would consider sealing the border with Macedonia if the situation at the Greek-Macedonian border continues. On the other side of Europe, the destruction of the refugee camp known as the ‘Jungle’ in Calais continued and police fired teargas at migrants who set fire to shelters in protest of the decision to demolish a part of the camp.
The European Union is unmistakably failing to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by its mismanagement of the refugee flow. Tensions drive the relations between member states. Some member states have even declared that non-Christian refugees are not welcome. Some others prefer imposing their own regulations and border practices over negotiating a common solution. As the UNHCR stated last week, “Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis”. Yet the EU is also on the verge of an internal crisis about the values and principles which it fervently defends worldwide. One of the most prominent of these values is diversity.
The motto ‘united in diversity’ has become a trademark of the EU in the 2000s; to proudly highlight that Europe is enriched by its different cultures, traditions and languages. The current criminalisation of migration and the increasing racist attitudes towards refugees put Europe’s motto of ‘unity in diversity’ to a serious test. Migrants, refugees and the act of migration are criminalised in many ways. It is done through legally and ethically questionable practices such as extended detention of people at offshore centres and seizure of migrants’ assets, despite an outcry from the UN. The discursive criminalisation of migration is equally concerning and is so widespread that it has become so natural to talk about ‘illegal migrants’ who should be deported, despite the UN warning that people cannot be labelled illegal. Public opinion on refugees in Europe remains highly divided with a considerable part of the European public holding negative opinions of them. Sadly, Europe no longer considers the diversity of opinions and of peoples its main strength.
Security concerns of member states and the deteriorating perception of migration, migrants and refugees seems like a major reason for turning to the Balkans and Turkey to push the problem away from Europe. However, without tackling the problematic depiction of the humanitarian crisis by the media, far-right groups and some mainstream politicians, the EU will not be able to develop a common response.
Reasons for the negative perception of migrants vary greatly. Amongst the most commonly cited complaints are the fear of increased job competition and social programmes. Some claim that the concern for competition over jobs and social benefits is a result of the way the media portrays refugees and migration. The negative tone of reporting on migration is usually coupled with the continuing effects of the financial crisis in Europe. The overall youth unemployment level stands around 20% reaching up to 40% in some member states. Still, it is relatively easy to argue against these claims by pointing to available data about the actual contribution of migrants to the ageing societies and European economies.
The worrying part is the increasing acceptance of culturalist objections by segments of the European public that (Muslim) immigrants would undermine the dominant traditions, identity and religion in Europe. It is these claims that can easily slip into xenophobic and extremist reactions and against which mainstream politicians struggle to find a popular counter-argument. Looking at the way that immigration and the refugee influx are discussed in the public sphere and the popularity of extremist parties in sparking racism and xenophobia as well as the decisions of some member states to limit immigration, there is an urgent need to target these culturalist objections.
However, in the middle of the conceptual muddle created by the irresponsible use of the terms of refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant or economic immigrant, statements by EU officials or member state governments intentionally or unintentionally serve to demonise irregular migration and migrants. Xenophobic and racist attitudes either in the form of misconceptions about Islam and refugees or more overt forms of hate speech and anti-immigration protests have become common practice in member states. Some politicians do not hesitate to engage in hate speech against refugees.
Of course many would claim that extremism is only supported by a tiny portion of Europeans and that extreme right-wing anti-immigration parties have not yet made strong political gains. Then, what about the mainstream politicians in Europe and high-level officials from the European Commission? The best case scenario is to depict irregular migration through security lenses which serves only to criminalise migrants and asylum-seekers in the eyes of European publics. In a recent statement, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker noted that ‘the non-EU countries on the Western Balkans route should also actively prevent third-country nationals from leaving their territory in an unauthorised manner by crossing the border outside the border crossing points, or before their legal status is determined’. In a similar manner, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated ‘they [migrants and asylum-seekers at Calais camps] are economic migrants and they want to enter Britain illegally and the British people and I want to make sure our borders are secure and you can’t break into Britain without permission’.
While European leaders do not restrain themselves from emphasising the importance of border protection and regularising the flow of irregular entry to their countries, to my knowledge no single European leader or high-level EU official has so far openly acknowledged that crossing a country’s border without authorization (read without a visa) does not constitute a criminal act against persons, property or national security (it may be only considered an administrative offence) under international law. Such statements are sorely needed to calm alarmed European publics and prevent far-right and racist appeals from capitalising on the situation.
By contrast, current practices citing security concerns leads to detentions, fines, imprisonment, outright rejection of the right to seek asylum, confiscation of migrants’ assets and forced deportation; showing that the praised EU motto ‘united in diversity’ might become a myth of the past. Mainstream politicians often hide their fear of the migrant inflow behind security concerns, while they shame the extreme right political parties and politicians for being racist and acting against common European values. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, they serve the same cause of making Europe an increasingly unwelcoming place for migrants and refugees.
What can European leaders and citizens do to stand against the evident rise of intolerance against diversity that is hidden behind the security excuses, if they do not believe that future generations in Europe deserve to be scapegoated because of their cultural, ethnic, national and religious background? The EU member states have to come to terms with the fact that this is first and foremost a refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon; and it requires a common response firmly rooted in universal and indivisible human rights. Furthermore, people who do not fall under the refugee status are not criminals. They might be considered as migrants; however, migration is not and has never been a temporary or new issue for Europe.
An effective solution to this crisis then does not lie in ‘managing’ the current inflow by pushing so-called economic migrants away from the EU through bilateral agreements and discursively criminalising them, but in making migration a matter of informed choice for both migrants and the receiving states. It is excruciating to see that Europe has become a place where six week olds suffer from teargas injuries and hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children disappear. This is the time to reaffirm the values upon which the EU was built. The only way to do this is for EU officials and member state governments to reframe the discussion through human rights and relevant international laws and principles.