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Gabriella Ekman: Does Europe Really Have a Refugee Crisis?

Europe has the capacity to receive refugees, they just don't want to.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Martin Leveneur

On October 20, 2015, the residents of an asylum center in Munkedal in western Sweden woke to screams, smoke and searing heat: their temporary home was on fire. The Swedish police would later declare the Munkedal fire the latest of ten suspected arson attacks on either planned or established asylum centers across the country this year, with the last four occurring in the space of just one week. Starting on October 13th, every other morning has brought reports of another fire, along with more photographs of blackened walls and charred, hollowed-out spaces where beds and kitchens used to stand.

And the week wasn’t over. On Thursday morning, October 22nd, a 21-year-old Nazi sympathizer named Anton Lundin Petterson entered a school in a multicultural neighborhood in western Sweden, killing two people and wounding two others with a sword before being shot to death by the police. The incident has officially been labeled a hate crime.

*

It’s been a long, strange summer in Europe. For months, newspaper readers, TV watchers, social media aficionados, and perhaps the odd tourist on Kos or Lampedusa gazing absent-mindedly up from their beach reading could watch refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa trying to flee across the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, or trying to travel north through the Balkans and Central Europe by car or on foot. They could watch and hear people drowning or being rescued; listen to reports of the numbers of dead, the numbers of saved. 800 drowned off the Libyan coast. 71 suffocated. 7,000 rescued. 2,643 dead. It began to sound like the weather.

Then it’s September. October. The leaves turn gold and brown; birds fly south. And the most recent images arrive from Hungary, Austria, Macedonia, Serbia. Images of people who’ve walked for days without food or water. Who’ve been imprisoned behind fences and barbed wire, inside trains that do not move. Some clutch cardboard signs that read, simply, Germany. Or, Where is the UN?

Where indeed?

Is there a “migration crisis” in Europe? What does it mean to call the movement of people from one area of the world into another a “crisis”—an emergency, a catastrophe, a problem of “biblical proportions,” to quote the UK’s The Telegraph?

That the people fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere are in a state of crisis is indisputable. They are fleeing ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab. They are fleeing the mass annihilation caused by Assad’s barrel bombs, the daily human rights abuses of Assad’s secret police, the next time Assad’s army decides to use sarin gas on his own people. They are fleeing Eritrea, the so-called “North Korea of Africa,” where extra-judicial executions, detentions, and disappearances are the stuff of daily life. Still others are escaping the debilitating hopelessness of an unrelenting poverty.

The route north is never easy. Between January 1st and October 27th, 2015, 3,257 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Migrants pay exorbitant fees to human traffickers to travel on overcrowded, leaky vessels that sink more often than they float. Among the dead this year was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi.

So, yes. These are people in crisis. They are desperate.

Their situation, however, never needed to be.

But as The Economist pointed out recently, the EU’s entire 2014 asylum influx accounted for just 0.03 percent of its population.

We are repeatedly told that the number of refugees in the world today is the largest since the Second World War—almost 60 million people, according to the UNHCR. Yet of these many millions of displaced people, only a fraction are actually making it to Europe. The war in Syria, to take just one example, has been going on for four years. Four million people have fled the country since the start of the conflict. An additional 7.6 million people are displaced within the country itself. As of March 2015, there were 1.9 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and 1.2 million refugees in Lebanon, a country half the size of New Jersey. In comparison, the entire European Union—all 28 member states—received only 628,000 applications for asylum last year. That isn’t the number of people granted asylum and allowed to legally reside within the borders of the EU, it’s the number of people who just made it there in one piece. This year, between January and September, 680,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the EU. It is not an insignificant number, and for individual countries the numbers are greater still: Germany alone is expected to receive between 800,000 to 1.5 million applications for asylum by the end of the year. But as The Economist pointed out recently, the EU’s entire 2014 asylum influx accounted for just 0.03 percent of its population. There’s room here.

Despite the relentless, near-apocalyptic rhetoric, then, despite the parade of images of thousands of people marching through Europe, carrying their children and sleeping by the side of the road, the “migration crisis” in Europe today is not a crisis of quantity. Infrastructure, perhaps. Unequally distributed responsibility, certainly. The vast majority of migrants and refugees are arriving on overburdened Greek and Italian islands. The vast majority of refugees are seeking asylum in Germany and Scandinavia, primarily Sweden. Germany’s predicted 800,000-1.5 million asylum seekers by January 2016 is a large number of people for one country to process, accommodate, and integrate. It is not a large number for a continent.

Europe’s problem, in fact, its “crisis,” is not that too many people are coming. The problem is that Europe does not want them.

Since the early 2000s, voters in almost every single country in Europe have been sending anti-immigrant, right wing parties off to parliament in droves. In France, the National Front; in Denmark the Danish People’s Party; in Hungary, Jobbik; in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats; in Finland, the True Finns; in Greece, the Golden Dawn; in Belgium, Vlaams Belang—et cetera. The popularity of these parties shows no sign of decreasing. On the contrary, in recent years in Finland, Hungary, France, Norway, Austria, and Switzerland, anti-immigrant parties entered parliament with percentages of the national vote ranging from the high teens to the mid-twenties. That is, with almost a fourth of the national vote. In elections last week, Poland swung completely far right, while Switzerland’s anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party received 29 percent of the popular vote. The origins of Europe’s anti-immigration parties differ: some emerged out of powerful agricultural blocs (True Finns), others from neo-Nazi organizations (Greece’s Golden Dawn, the Sweden Democrats, France’s National Front). Most are intensely Islamophobic, though Hungary’s Jobbik has the dubious distinction of seeming to (still) hate Jews more than Muslims. What unites them, however, is a shared conviction that the current large-scale immigration of refugees and migrants from North Africa and the Middle East is going to destroy the “national cultures” of their respective nations. Indeed, that it is going to destroy Europe itself.

We should call this conviction by its proper names. Racism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. Fear and hatred of the other, the stranger. Take Poland, for instance. This increasingly prosperous country, with its own long, difficult history of war, persecution, and displacement, has without fuss absorbed hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict in the eastern Ukraine–for which they should be commended. But accepting even a few Syrians or Eritreans? Muslims? Black people? According to a study conducted in 2013 by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, 69 percent of Poles simply don’t want non-white people living in their country.

Needless to say, the browning of Europe is a “crisis” only for those who would prefer their Bing Crosby kind of Christmas to stay white. But for all the hundreds of thousands of people across Europe galvanized by tales of the “migration crisis” into hands-on humanitarian action, who’ve devoted untold hours welcoming refugees at their borders with food, water, and medical aid, who’ve opened up their homes and lobbied their legislators, there are others for whom the rhetoric of “crisis” only confirms what far-right leaders such as Victor Orban, Jimmie Åkesson, Geert Wilders, Olli Immonen, and Marine le Pen have been saying all along. Europe is being invaded. To them, statements such as le Pen’s, that Muslims praying on the streets of Paris is akin to occupation by the Nazis, is a reasonable assessment of fact. They read stories of migrants and refugees “storming” borders or “charging” through fences and think only this: there are borders. And “these people” are breaking them down.

According to Ojuland, the current migration of people from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe constitutes a clear threat to the future survival of the “white race.”

Meet, for instance, Kristiina Ojuland. Ojuland is Estonia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Alleged election fraud got her kicked out of the ruling Reform Party; she’s now trying to woo voters to her new party by inveigling would-be constituents with the threat of an influx of brown people. According to Ojuland, the current migration of people from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe constitutes a clear threat to the future survival of the “white race.” Indeed, she repeatedly refers to migration as a “negro question,” and one might dismiss her as a lonely right-wing nut-job if not for the fact that she has friends. In July, a caravan of 400 burly bikers visited Estonia’s only asylum center, in the small village of Vao, with the express purpose of supporting the locals in their protest against the center’s expansion. The Vao villagers greeted the bikers jubilantly. Two of the bikers wore T-shirts printed with the face of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right fanatic currently serving a life sentence for murdering 77 people in Norway in 2011. In September, an arson attack nearly burnt the Vao center down. The residents there, 50 adults and 13 children, speak of nearly constant attacks and harassment.

But perhaps the tide is turning. Despite closing borders in Hungary and Slovenia, and Bulgaria and Serbia threatening to do the same, the EU did manage to agree to a quota system for distributing 160,000 refugees safely and legally across the 28 member states. David Cameron, after announcing a “crackdown” on non-EU migration in May, has since committed the UK to accepting 20,000 refugees. Even Slovakia has agreed to accept 200—as long as they’re Christian. Whatever ultimately happens to EU migration policy, however, the anti-immigrant factions of Europe aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to stay. After all, they’re citizens.

*

Earlier this summer, during the first week of August, a 15-year-old girl was raped in the city of Uleåborg in Finland. The police quickly identified two main suspects. In accordance with Finnish law, their names and identities were not revealed. But on social media word spread instantly about one single salient point: the suspects were immigrants.

One week later, a mother and her son were murdered in an IKEA in Västerås in Sweden. The murders happened in broad daylight and the suspects were instantly apprehended. In accordance with Swedish law, their names and their identities were not revealed. But as in Finland, word spread quickly on social media. The suspects were refugees from a nearby asylum facility, and they had chopped the victims’ heads off, inspired by an ISIS video.

What is true and what is not? Once the Finnish police realized speculation about the identities of the rapists had reached a fevered pitch, they made an official statement assuring the public that the perpetrators were not immigrants. No one cared. In the Swedish case, the perpetrators were refugees from a nearby asylum center. But the woman and her son were stabbed. No one’s head was chopped off. Nothing that happened that day in August had anything to do with ISIS.

Images, ideas, words. They gather in the brain, accumulate in thick, sticky layers. Attach themselves to loves and hates we never speak of, fears we don’t even know we have. Logic, reasoning, the truth, the lie—these gradually cease to matter. Only the fear is real. Only the stranger is dead.

*

In one of the stories in Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, we meet an unidentified man applying for asylum in Malmö in southern Sweden. He knows he has to perform a certain kind of refugee narrative in order to be granted asylum, but he isn’t certain of the codes, of the key words. He just knows it has to be horrific. The story he proceeds to tell is about a camera. It is about being kidnapped first by one violent semi-jihadist group and then another. At each stop, he is beaten up and forced to confess, on camera, to having committed crimes against humanity, raped women, killed civilians, of colluding with the Americans. The video is then sent to news stations around the world. It’s so successful he’s sold to another group. The new one is silent, masked; no one speaks to him. But the cameraman who appears when it’s time to record his second confession is the same. The camera is the same. And so, again, he recites his supposed deeds. A cow moos, long and lonesome, as he’s speaking. They have to re-record the video.

Who looks at whom, and why? Power. Who has it, who does not. The men with the guns, the man without. The caseworker versus the refugee. Those forced to seek asylum because their worlds lie in dust and ruin. And those who will never have to.

Gabriella Ekman has a PhD in English Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and currently teaches English at Uppsala University-Gotland and Gotland People’s College. She lives in Sweden.

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One comment for Gabriella Ekman: Does Europe Really Have a Refugee Crisis?

  1. Comment by Nadin on November 4, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Fantastic article! The sad truth about Europe, for which I will increasingly ashamed. Thanks for your thoughts on the issue. I hope it triggers some serious debates about the growing radicalism in Europe.

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