Europe does not have a ‘migration problem’: it has a xenophobia problem

This year, Europe has experienced a growing influx of people who are fleeing from civil wars and failed states. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 350,000 people arrived in Europe by sea between January and August 2015 (compared to 219,000 for the whole of 2014): nearly 235,000 in crisis-ridden Greece, 114,000 in Italy and little over 2,000 in Spain.

These numbers are large, but still much smaller than those of Syrian refugees currently camped in Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Jordan (629,000) – countries that are considerably poorer and smaller than the EU. The UNHCR has stated that 9/10 of those arriving in Greece come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, nearly half of those reaching Italian shores fled from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria, namely states that are ravaged by conflicts or large-scale violations of human rights.
Through their actions or inaction, several EU member states contributed to creating the chaos from which the refugees are fleeing. It is enough to think of the British and French military operations in Libya, which were not followed up by any post-conflict plans and let the country spiral into civil war. We should also remind ourselves of the participation of many European countries in the US-led wars of the George W. Bush era, which contributed to destabilizing the Middle East and to creating fertile ground for ISIS recruiters.
However, today Europe is not pondering its past mistakes and their relevance to present circumstances. In the EU, the debate has so far focused on strengthening border controls (as if this solved the humanitarian crisis), the link between immigration and terrorism and whether migrants should be relocated on the basis of compulsory national quotas decided by the European Commission, or rather following voluntary proposals of member states. A few member states have distinguished themselves with a more generous approach – most notably Germany, for welcoming a large number of refugees on its territory, and Sweden, which last year accepted the highest number of asylum applications as a proportion of its total population. However, elsewhere the picture is much grimmer: Eastern European member states, the United Kingdom and Finland are among the staunchest opponents of mandatory quotas for the relocation of migrants in the EU.
Many European leaders do not seem to be worried about the humanitarian dimension of the catastrophe that has now started to reach their countries. For Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, for instance, 95% of the people who are now trying to enter the EU via Greece, Italy and Hungary are merely economic migrants, and not refugees. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has branded them as “illegal migrants” and is attempting to stop them from entering the Schengen area with a fence at the border with Serbia. For Fico and Orban, the current crisis must be framed in terms of illegal migration and subsequent repatriation to the countries of origin. Their attempts to distort reality have a legal reason: under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, EU states must offer refuge and protection to those who can demonstrate that they are escaping war and persecution.
Seemingly oblivious of Europe’s recent history, Czech policemen marked migrants with numbers on their arms and hands, while Hungary used convicts to put up a fence at its border with Serbia. When pressed to take in a (small) quota of migrants, the Slovak and Polish prime ministers stated that their countries were ready to take in a few families of Christian refugees. Besides exposing their advocates’ outright religious intolerance, such positions are in clear conflict with the EU’s basic values and its declared support of a “society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail” (article 2, Treaty on European Union).
The disregard of European values and the quarrels among member states over the relocation of migrants have exposed – in Ivan Krastev’s words – the deep crisis at the heart of the European project. Its roots are not to be found in the current influx of refugees from war-torn regions. It is rather the result of the failure of numerous Europeans to identify with the values that they advocate on paper, of genuinely confronting the xenophobic past of their countries and of the constant securitization of humanitarian issues such as migration. By treating chauvinist, right-wing politicians as worthy interlocutors, and even accepting them in government, EU institutions and some member states have largely contributed to crafting the crisis. Allowing xenophobic discourses in state institutions is a strong catalyst for their dissemination in society. Hence, formulating a new European discourse that emphasizes human rights, solidarity and non-discrimination is the first step towards avoiding the further radicalization of the crisis.

This comment was originally published by the
Finnish Institute of International Affairs.