In observations made at a side-meeting of the 87th session of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the IRR’s director warned that Europe’s mishandling of the refugee crisis is fuelling racism.
I want to talk about the immediate institutional crisis in the EU, as hostility grows towards a modest plan by the European Commission to relocate a little over 32,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. The failure of the member states to rise to the humanitarian challenge posed by the boat people arriving via the Mediterranean Sea, the mean-spirited and positively hostile response of some governments, both national and regional, and the breakdown of solidarity between the receiving countries and their richer neighbours, has had consequences. These consequences need to be discussed in terms of cause and effect, in order to fully grasp the intersection between the breakdown of a humanitarian approach to asylum and the growth of racism.
But I would first like to frame my points by making two short observations. First, failures in the institutional response should not blind us to the absolute heroism of ordinary people and over-stretched civil society actors such as Refugees Welcome (Germany), Caritas (Austria) and Migszol (Hungary) who are feeding, clothing and welcoming the new arrivals. Second, we must recognise that the current lack of political leadership, and the failure to find adequate and secure accommodation, is not something new. What I will describe serves merely as the top layer of an existing situation. Europe has fallen far short of providing a safe haven for displaced people, and deaths of migrants do not just occur in tragic circumstances at Europe’s borders. The fact that deaths inside accommodation or removal centres, or as the result of enforced destitution, are met with official indifference, suggests continuity with the moral inertia towards border deaths . The Institute of Race Relations recently published an audit of 160 asylum-and immigration-related deaths within EU States between 2010 and 2015, 46 per cent of which were by suicide, as desperation reached epidemic proportions.
Scaremongering in the media
The roots of the current spate of attacks on migrant accommodation centres start with a scaremongering media discourse and equally irresponsible words from some politicians. Migrants are represented in the media as toxic waste, a dangerous mob, human flotsam, an unstoppable flood and a terrorist threat. In the UK, they have been compared with insects, through the use of inflammatory terms such as ‘swarms of people’ (British prime minister David Cameron) and ‘like cockroaches’ (Sun columnist, Katie Hopkins). The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond singled out African ‘economic migrants’ in Calais, describing them as ‘marauding migrants’ ‘threatening our standard of living’ and opining that ‘Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.’ (It’s also worth noting here that, in relation to Calais, there has been barely a flicker of concern about the fact that at least thirteen migrants, including two teenagers have died attempting to reach the UK since June.)
Spreading hostility not curbing it
The consequence of such scaremongering – which portrays migrants as a security threat – is that it has become much more difficult for electorates to understand why migrants take such a perilous journey, particularly if they hail from African countries, the problems of which are barely covered in the European press. In this climate, too many politicians are pandering to prejudice, acting for short-term self-interest, whipping up distrust, spreading hostility, not curbing it. Unless politicians at a national, local and regional level are encouraged to act responsibly, xenophobia will continue to be manipulated into something more sinister, and potentially deadly. France has sealed its Italian border at Ventimiglia, Hungary is constructing a wall at the border with Serbia (reportedly with the use of prison labour). The Czech interior ministry demands cultural compatibility of those relocated, and the governor of Lombardy threatens to financially penalise northern Italian prefects who go along with the national relocation plan. Luigi Ammatuna, the mayor of the Sicilian port town of Pozzallo, in the Ragusa region, summed up the Italian North-South divide well when he said that the North’s anti-immigration stance was ‘spreading bad feeling’ about migrants across the entire country, adding that its leaders are ‘heartless’ and ‘selfish’ for not working with the government to solve the crisis. Meanwhile, the leader of the powerful Northern League, has declared that the ‘League is prepared to occupy every hotel, hostel, school or barracks intended for the alleged refugees’.
Anti-black racism, anti-multiculturalism
The first step is to end rhetoric which, in some countries, has now gone beyond anti-immigration into a wider anti-multiculturalism and a discourse with heavy overtones of anti-black racism. Here we can specifically identify the interventions of electoral extreme and far-right politicians. For example, the Finns Party – the second largest party in the Finnish parliament – has representatives such as Olli Immonen MP, who wrote on social media that he was ‘dreaming of a strong, brave nation that will defeat this nightmare called multiculturalism’. And Marian Kotleba, the state governor of the Banská Bystrica region, told a rally of 8,000 people in Bratislava protesting against relocation of refugees, ‘I wish you a nice, white day … we are here to save Slovakia’.
Demonstrations and vigilante-style attacks
Such rhetoric encourages hostility at a local level, where examples abound of migrants, seeking safety, being greeted by hate-filled mobs. In Prague, anti-immigration demonstrators waved gallows and nooses, calling for the death of ‘traitors’, i.e. all those who support migrants. In Treviso, Italy, 100 migrants had to be evacuated from one town after two days of protests spearheaded by fascists from Casa Pound – and after the Northern League mayor for the Veneto region had called for the refugees to be cleared out of accommodation near tourist resorts, warning that the region was in danger of ‘Africanisation’. And in Germany, where attacks on refugee accommodation centres for 2015 – specifically arsons – now exceed that of the whole of 2014 (in turn, attacks in 2014 were up threefold from 2013), journalists and local politicians are now facing death threats and the car of one east German politician was blown up.
When politicians lead the way
While Germany has its protest movement, PEGIDA, hostile responses in other countries are led by politicians – in Hungary, by the prime minister, and in others, such as Austria, where the Social Democrats in Burgenland have formed a coalition government with the extreme-right Freedom Party, by state governors and local mayors from both centre Left and centre Right. In Bavaria, the state premier Horst Seehofer has been accused by the Central Council of Jews of provoking hostility towards asylum seekers, and across the North of Italy, hostility has been fuelled by senior politicians in Liguria, Lombardy and Veneto. Other countries like the UK and Denmark have started to cut welfare payments to migrants, in a further lurch towards the nativist agenda of the anti-migration movements. The UK government, for example, has slashed asylum support payments and is proposing to withdraw automatic support for families whose claims are refused but who for legitimate reasons cannot return home – amounting to enforced destitution. And both Italy and the UK are attempting to drive those without papers out of private housing, by outsourcing immigration controls to landlords.
The danger is that xenophobia ‘from below’ will combine with structural neglect of human rights ‘from above’. This will result in a further deterioration of conditions (overcrowding, lack of health care) in reception and detention centres. ‘Fast-track procedures’ to speed up asylum claims will not only lead to grave injustices but more forcible deportations, which also claim lives, as we saw most recently in March 2015 in Sweden when an Iraqi asylum seeker suffocated during a deportation attempt, the seventeenth such deportation death in Europe since 1991.
Though there has been a huge drive by ordinary European citizens to welcome refugees, to take a stand for human dignity, another trend is undermining it. The truth is that we face the possibility of a perfect storm unless those in power take cognisance of their positive duty to combat racism, rather than fuel it.
IRR News: Taking a stand for human dignity