There is a political crisis afflicting both Europe and the U.S., that of a growing fear of refugees who represent the three Rs* of the Other:
I spent July in Poland and Germany studying the way Europe has been dealing with the large influx of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, etc. You may recall that an unprecedented number of refugees, 998,904, crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to Italy and Greece in numbers in 2015; most found their way north to other European countries. Some are still stranded in Greece and the Balkans. 3698 died or are missing.
For a summary of the latest socio-demographic profiles of the nearly one million refugees, see the MEDMIG report authored by Crawley et. al.
Part 1 of my report reflects on the findings presented at the annual meeting of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM), held this year in the quaint but bustling city of Poznań, Poland’s first capital, (and birthplace of the St. Martin Croissant). Part 2 (next week) will report from Berlin and Nuremberg, where I met with staff and researchers who are involved in Germany’s refugee services infrastructure.
It was fitting to have the IASFM conference in Poznan for both rational and ironic reasons. Poles have been migrating out of and throughout Europe in large numbers since the early 19th century. Their migration to the U.S. was the subject of Florian Znaniecki’s and William I Thomas’ classic work on migration, ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920)’. Znaniecki went on to establish the department of Sociology in the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Millions of Poles were displaced during and after the two World Wars in the 20th century. After the Solidarity revolution and the demise of the Communist government in 1989, a wrenching transition to a free market economy led many from former East Bloc countries like Poland to migrate to Western Europe to find better paying jobs; this became easier when Poland joined the EU in 2004.
The ironic side to this story is that Poland’s current government refuses to participate in the E.U.’s proposal to share the burden of resettling last year’s influx of refugees throughout the 28 E.U. member states. I should mention that our Polish friends, who took great care of us, are actually quite mortified at the behavior of the current Polish regime, not just on the question of immigration, but on its attempt to dilute the powers of their supreme court, and its environmental policies. (Even Obama made a summer visit to try to encourage up Polish democracy, giving President Duda a little scolding.)
The Polish leadership, however, is simply part of a disturbing trend, aptly described by Poznań’s native son, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:
TV news, political speeches, and internet Tweets, used to deliver foci and outlets for public anxieties and fears, are currently overflowing with reference to the ‘migration crisis’ – ostensibly overwhelming Europe, and portending the collapse and demise of the way of life we know, practice, and cherish.
Bauman raises an important question: how does ongoing phenomenon like migration become a crisis?
The social construction of “crisis”
Professor Paula Banerjee*, President the IASFM, University of Calcutta, got right to the point with her assertion that for something to be considered by Europe, North America, or Australia as a migration “crisis” usually involves three factors:
I would add a fourth factor,
Therefore, when we talk of a “migrant crisis,” it is vital that we ask,
“Crisis for whom?”
For those who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to reach Italy and Greece in 2015, 84% of whom came from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, their experience was clearly one marked by crisis. There is without doubt “a crisis of refugee protection,” said Crawley of Coventry University, a blatant failure to protect people from violence around the zones of conflict – the Horn of Africa, Congo, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
Managing the large numbers of migrants coming into Europe, while certainly a huge challenge, is not an episodic event that merits the label of crisis. Europe has handled similar challenges in the past, for example during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and will deal with them in the future. To put this in perspective, we are talking about 1 million people spread throughout 28 E.U. countries, with a total population of 500 million. (The U.S., with a population of 300 million, absorbs a million plus immigrants each year). German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Wir schaffen das,“ (“we can handle this.”) And the fact that Germany is managing to deal with this contests the dominant narrative of “crisis.”
There is, however, a political crisis that is afflicting both Europe and the U.S., that of a growing fear of refugees who represent the three Rs of the Other: 1) Race (Arab, African, Latino), 2) Religion (Muslim), 3) Resources (they take our jobs and social benefits).
The efforts by pundits and politicians to construct the recent migration as a crisis have been successful in the sense that it is perceived to be so by the voting public. As IOM representative Frederick Soda observed, the electorate in Europe has lost confidence in their leaders to deal with migration. As a result, says Soda, the E.U. has regressed 8-10 years in discussions about refugee or immigration policy.
Soda made this statement at the Poznan conference on July 13. Over the next two weeks France would experience two more terror attacks, and Germany three attacks, two of which involved young men who were asylum seekers. In France the electorate seems to have also lost confidence in their leaders to protect them. Given the growing influence of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties and movements in the E.U. (and U.S.), no political leaders are willing to propose measures to provide refugees a safer means of finding asylum in Europe.
The consequence of these recent events for progressive refugee policy in Europe is unclear. In Part 2, I will share the perspectives of Germans who work with refugees on how the country has managed the situation over the past year, and on what the recent upsurge of terrorism means for the integration of refugees in German society.
*Paula Banerjee is President the IASFM, and a Professor in the Department of South and South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta