In times when Europeans are experiencing a political shift to the right, immigrants are haunted by legacies of neo-imperial, economic exploitation as well as the long-term effects of the only-recently defunct colonial machinery. After thousands of refugees fleeing war in their own countries died trying to reach Europe’s borders, the EU responded by tightening regulations, blurring the boundaries between assistance, re-settling and pressing them back. The outcome is a testament to an ideological shift that endangers all Europeans, as politicians attempt to make mainstream the political right-wing spin that matches capitalist elitism. It resembles an anti-solidarity campaign that is strengthened by a political ontology of culture as static and “organic” – neither adaptable nor socially attainable – and Europeans as guardians of an imagined independent community.
What the public discourse on current migration issues lacks is the historical and economic contextualisation of the migrants. In order to tackle an issue fully, one needs to know the context, not merely a brief about its symptoms. Rather than politicising their influx, I suggest that we need to understand their background and relations with Europe case by case, especially, for example, those fleeing Eritrea, Sudan and Syria, the three main countries from which the migrants come. Furthermore, there is a need to assess critically the right-wing European foundations of the claims that newcomers will not work or contribute to society, nor fit in naturally, given that we can see Sweden adapting successfully and believing in the migrants as social benefactors.
Last week, the new Danish government proposed to allocate a considerable budget to campaigning against immigration. The inspiration was taken from Australia, whose “No Way” campaign, launched last year, warns people considering refuge in Australia that there is “no place, for them”. Indeed, these campaigns are directed against certain ethnicities and nationalities, through distribution and language.
The Danish “liberal” right-wing parties, Venstre and Dansk Folkeparti, are in favour of translating a similar campaign into Arabic, targeting the increase of refugees from Arab-speaking countries. Venstre, though, has announced some internal ambiguity on the matter, arguing against political “tokenism” and for a more humanist approach. Inger Støjberg, the new Danish Minister of Integration, belongs to the populist, centre-right Venstre Party; she has been tested in several debates on her current policies, including one which allows Denmark to assess migrants according to their home country against a UN issued document, listing the most socially and economically “appropriate” and suitably “developed” countries, in the conviction that Japanese culture, for example, would have more in common with Denmark’s. The UN has discouraged this strategy as inappropriate. Similarly, the majority of parties in the Danish parliament have called the new government’s policies “distasteful”. The assumption of Dansk Folkeparti and Venstre is a naïve concept of culture and coexistence disproved in countless of instances and historical events, that it is static, and never in dialogue; one that “grows from the Danish soil” and thus can never be embodied by “Others”. This falsely legitimises a fear of the Other from whom we cannot learn, mix culturally or cooperate; and thus whose presence we shall fear. This was also seen in the recent election in Denmark, when parties vied with each other to see who was more xenophobic; collecting votes by rejecting the fact that Denmark is or will ever become, multicultural.
Denmark is the only EU country planning to discriminate against refugees according to their home country. However, the Danish example is indicative of many other current European tendencies regarding immigration. The tone is directed towards American-style “homeland security” with an obsession over the risk of unemployment and economic consequences and their own “limited hosting capacity”. As seen in the Swedish attitude, however, recent studies argue that immigration can be an economic and social success for host countries.
From push backs to press back strategies
Current migration policies in the EU are stricter and more comprehensive than before. The EU has no cohesive framework for governing the influx of people who risk their lives in the hope of a better future. With not one but 28 migrant policies, this explains why asylum practices are increasingly obscure and bureaucratic, deploying agencies to help fulfil its functions of search, rescue and re-settlement of refugees.
I spoke to a representative of the EU migration department, who explained the new “four pillars” of the EU migration policies: reducing incentives to come to Europe; a strong asylum policy; a new policy on legal migration; and the saving of lives with the securing of external borders. Re-settlement plans are now linked to the UNHCR which, in war-torn and provisional hosting countries like Lebanon, determines appropriate asylum-seekers and flies them into Europe. People have the right to claim asylum through a legal pathway in Europe; the resettlement plans are crucial in order to avoid people risking their lives by flying them in from their provisional refuge, according to the aforementioned representative.
However, the modest promise of the EU to resettle 20,000 out of the millions of war victims over the course of 24 months – rather than the UN-recommended maximum of 12 months – is going to be problematic, as no apparent changes in asylum criteria are being made. As this number is merely a symbolic promise of humanitarianism in the EU, the million other displaced people with perfectly legitimate asylum claims will be turned away, but on what grounds?
Focusing on two things, namely the uncovering of illegal smugglers (“illegal immigrants”) and bolstering border countries, the idea is allegedly to understand the ways in which “smugglers convince and attract” desperate people to risk their lives. I recall many stories from people, such as Palestinians in Lebanon, who have no statehood, rights or dignity to claim, and for whom no convincing is needed before embarking on this kind of trip. By recasting desperation as illegal and coerced, the rhetoric seems displaced from reality, an attempt to see the symptoms before the issues.
The bulk of media material on “new” migration policies is more an expression, perhaps, of the EU’s internal insecurities about keeping its borders secure; about “fortress Europe”. The EU tripled the budget for Poseidon and Triton in order to increase its capabilities for “search and rescue” and to a larger extend increase the management of the influx vis-à-vis the fragmented body that governs the now seven digit number of refugees attempting to come to Europe. The rhetoric of the new initiatives are dividing irregular immigration; “illegal migration” versus the “legal” kind, in a globalised world that has always had migrants.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank published a review on EU migration policies, arguing for better cooperation with neighbouring countries, but the focus on “illegal” rather than “migration” shuts down the potential of a productive dialogue that could have developed a more full-bodied migration and asylum policy. The dialogue should be broader and address all migration and mobility and not just its dysfunctionality. As such, irregular migration policy has to be a part of such a policy as well as a common asylum policy.
On the question of the extent to which colonial and neo-imperial legacies providing the basis for migration are included in EU negotiations, the representative I spoke to pointed immediately to the EU commission’s allocated aid to post-colonial countries. Whereas this was not the intended response, I gather that somehow, rather than reflecting and contextualising the situation that member states have legacies within, the solution is to buy themselves out of their responsibilities for the problems creeping up on their shores.
The countries ranging at the top of the migrant’s home countries are Syria and Eritrea. Look at the colonial and European legacies in the foundation of the realities that cause people to flee; both are former colonies, of France and Italy then Britain respectively. Syria is also a major host of Palestinian refugees, whose plight has been created by colonial machinery.
After Syria’s independence, authoritarian leaders disengaged and controlled the population for whom no avenue of political participation or resistance was allowed; they were effectively kept in check by the much-feared Mukhabarat secret police. A common post-colonial trend was to leave countries vulnerable to coups. Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, when most constitutional protection for citizens was suspended; its system of government is considered to be non-democratic. The Assad clan has been in government since a Ba’athist coup d’état in 1970, after 20 years of coup attempts, against whom Syrians have revolted, on various grounds, due to the regime’s colonial strategy of divide and rule. The net result is the current war in Syria since 2011, during which over two million people have been displaced and many human rights organisations have called for war crimes and crimes against humanity to be investigated.
The north-east African country of Eritrea was the second last to gain independence from British administration, but was only recognised internationally as independent in 1993. In the 1940s, Britain and Italy fought over the land before the British placed Eritrea under military administration. London then dismantled and confiscated Eritrean industries as war compensation and remained in charge until 1950. It has a very complicated, historical background with the involvement of several EU countries in destabilising, annexing and colonising the Eritreans who are now fleeing economic deterioration and instability.
I believe that such considerations are central to the reasons for “irregular” flight from one’s home country. The structure of both Syria and Eritrea are marked heavily by colonial legacies, an uncomfortable truth that public debates in Europe would rather dismiss as an “outdated” factor.
Sweden and the economic and social realities of migration resettlement
Sweden is one of the EU Member States with the highest number of asylum seekers. More than 70,000 refugees from Syria have sought asylum in Sweden since the conflict started in 2011. For the period 2015-2016, the Swedes plan to resettle an additional 1,500 Syrian refugees; this means that Sweden will have settled 3,000 Syrian refugees in the three years from 2013 to 2016.
According to Johan Nylander, operations coordinator at the Swedish Employment Office, who is responsible for the introduction of newly arrived refugees (a broad responsibility that encompasses many areas), the fact of being one of the most hospitable countries for refugees in the EU presents challenges when so many people need help and protection. “But those challenges are in many ways short term,” he said, as he explained the need for Sweden to have migrants wanting to resettle; the population of Sweden is getting older, and in the coming years needs more people in the workforce in order to continue its economic development.
Arbetsförmedlingen has recently published a report stating that in order for Sweden as a country to keep its economic development it is dependent upon people from abroad moving there. Furthermore, the OECD has found similar positive effects of migration.
Together with Germany, Sweden is the main destination in Europe for asylum seekers from Syria. They are given a permanent residence permit in Sweden, and have the right to family reunification. During the time that their applications are being processed they have wide-ranging rights in terms of access to the labour market, housing, health and medical care and financial support.
Kerstin I. Lindblad, Deputy Director at the Swedish Ministry of Justice, told me, “Resettlement is and has been a priority for Sweden for many years.” Indeed, the government in Stockholm devoted one-third of the 1,900 places of the yearly refugee resettlement quota to Syrian refugees in 2013-2014.
“We are concerned that the resettlement needs, both present and future, will continue to outpace the available slots,” said Lindblad. This makes increased participation in resettlement activities a high priority on the EU as well as on the international agenda. “We strive to convince more states to commit themselves to refugee resettlement and show solidarity and pledge their fair share,” she added.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.