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Contextualising the European protests in favour of Syrian refugees

Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe gathered outside their respective parliaments to demand policies that reflected the people's solidarity with Syrian refugees. After four years of suffering, Syrian civilians are risking their lives to desperately reach European shores in the hope of humanity. London alone saw up to 100,000 people standing up to their government's inhumane refugee and foreign policies. The EU is significantly unprepared for this situation, despite having witnessed the four-year long war, and the influx of Syrians to the exhausted bordering countries who already suffer many of their own burdens. Indeed, Lebanon, which has taken in 1.9 million refugees from Syria, is on the brink of an uprising itself; and we see things escalating exponentially with the country suffering from a lack of resources to provide its ever-expanding population.

Lebanon also recently saw the Danish government campaigning against refugee re-settlement on its land in various popular newspapers. Although the recent election of the right-wing extremist party Dansk Folkeparti (DF), the Danes have on many occasions demonstrated their people's welcoming attitude – despite their government's outrageously xenophobic proclamations. Many Danes sought out starving and exhausted Syrians to give them food and other essentials; civil society organisations collected money, and several people risked four years in prison by smuggling refugees to Sweden. Yesterday was no exception of this attitude of resistance. An impressive 40,000 people gathered in front of the Danish parliament to protest against the government's strict border control and racism against Syrians, who have bravely and rightfully defied government scaremongering.

There seems to be a persisting Orientalist discourse in European dealings of the current crisis. The recent elections in Denmark and the UK went in favour of policies that discouraged immigration from specific regions and shelved all international responsibilities. In Denmark, this can be seen in the increase in politicians' comments on "terrorists hiding bombs" as they enter Europe. Danish parliamentarian Nasser Khader – who is Syrian-Palestinian of origin – is symptomatic of the ways in which politicians utilise the situation to their favour to fuel populist discourses, based on xenophobia and intolerance, which the media and political agenda have diligently cultivated over decades. Thousands of Danes demonstrated on Saturday against destruction of humanitarianism by their government.

By misrepresenting culture as organic and static rather than its dynamic reality, Danish right-wing politicians have successfully laid the basis for phobic claims of segregation and the demonisation of fellow beings who have the right to protection. The right to "fare well" is one that Danes have prided themselves on internationally, and which has now become misrepresented by those working to promote certain political agendas. Welfare should be beyond any discourse or political interest and, as the circumstances have proved, it is. This is why the people of Denmark are risking a criminal record to express their humanitarian culture that has nothing to do with any collective, homogenous and unchanging identity or history. Welfare has roots in humanitarianism and thinking of your next of kin; not in xenophobia. Indeed, the cornerstone of many of DF's policies rests on the protectionism necessitated by this conjured phobia, which is explained away using a misconception of a static meaning of Danish culture – brought into play by the media – bought and sold through public opinion.

Motorway in Denmark where people are walking to Sweden [photo: ITV]

Europe's colonial legacy

Humanity suffered another blow this week, as British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to bomb Syria (and host the world's biggest weapons fair), whilst simultaneously securing a minimal intake of the war's victims. Having now killed more than 330,000 people (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), the war in Syria is a proxy war, catalysed by foreign investments – including from Europe. This fact alone is exposed as completely ill-considered with regards to the possible influx of Syrian refugees to Europe; Europe's warring countries are somehow reluctant (or unwilling) to see the connection between warfare and an increase in displaced people. Some EU member states are involved in this Syrian proxy war and have, furthermore, historically created its foundation – much of Syria's social fragmentation and power vacuum are legacies of European colonial activity. This is what preceded the current instability of the Middle East, but also what we see playing out now, once again, through the increased weaponisation of fighters and the shelling of the region, dividing and ruling a territory we should feel an immense responsibility towards.

The media have a huge role to play in overlooking and disregarding this wider context. It is both fashioned and profitable to sensationalise a topic; just to the point before which reader starts feel responsible or – God forbid – guilty over terrible events. The historical connections Europe has with the Middle East, politically, socially and economically, are essential to refugee crisis such as this; the current crisis offers a great opportunity to re-assess the ways in which the media influence people and can determine political discourses.

According to the UN, refugees are expected by the million in Europe by the end of the year. On the one hand, this situation should be beyond politics and politicians' individual agendas; rather, people should act according to the moral instinct of humanity in order to offer aid to people in need. A Danish policeman expressed it to Danish newspaper Politiken very frankly: "They are there now, on our border". He saw Danish people – contrary to their newly elected right-wing government of the Danish nationalist party – showing kindness and risking prison terms by smuggling refugees across the country from Rødby to Sweden. It can take months to reach this destination for refugees, during which time they have already suffered many years of war, crossed dangerous waters to reach Europe, suffered beatings from riot police on the Greek-Macedonian border and faced sleeping rough for days and weeks on end.

On the other hand, a de-politicisation of any Middle East-European crisis is extremely dangerous. This is due to the fact that the relations between these regions are highly political, and carry with them historical grievances that the residents of the former continue to live on a day-to-day basis. Time has, in many cases, merely deepened the community divisions left by colonial re-structuring according to synthetic borders. Palestinians, for example, are a people who live this legacy every single day. If we de-politicise the crisis, we will neglect this political context needed for people to resist corruptive representations of others. If we put the UN to use at in crisis, we will normalise a highly political issue as a state of exception or "crisis" when in fact we should have expected such influx of refugees as a direct result of the political and historical relations Europe has with the region. Against the widespread "crisis" discourse – seemingly coming out of "nowhere" – Europeans need to inquire into the political interests that seek to cast them as such passive people, discouraging them to take action.

Even Denmark's left-wing parties went populist and agreed with DF's hard-core restrictions, such as the recent refusal to accept even one of the EU quotas of allocating 160,000 refugees. Furthermore, the Danish Minister for Integration Inger Støjberg has de-contextualised refugees and cast them as "migrants", arguing that Denmark will accept certain nationalities – but not Arabs, as apparently, according to a UN list – Denmark is more compatible with nationalities such as Japan! The DF's use of a national "compatibility list" was condemned by the UN and shamed domestically as well as internationally.

There are two recurring issues with the foundation on which right-wing politicians in Europe make their claims against accepting refugees. They have used these tools for decades to close national borders and impose tighter immigration controls. The first is the ways in which they perceive the definition of "national culture"; the other, is the extent to which they eschew any responsibility for the refugee crisis – an important tool that feeds into the dehumanisation of Syria's displaced people. Taking steps to accommodate these desperate people is a matter of getting up and stop leaving politics to the politicians, let alone the question of humanity. We need to make our politicians accountable for their foreign policy; as British MP Caroline Lucas put it earlier this week in the Parliament: "In the week that London once again hosted the largest arms fair in the world isn't it time the government recognised the link between arms sales and the terrible tragedy we're seeing unfold around us?"

The UK government's response

Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP's office recently assured me that "the UK is working with EU and international partners to tackle the problem at its root, by seeking to disrupt the organised crime gangs smuggling people into Europe, returning illegal migrants, and working with source and transit countries to stop people making this perilous journey in the first place." But, how can a politician think smuggling desperate people is at the "root" of the issue; surely this is rather the root of the UK government's "problem"?

Another point on Hammond's agenda was to emphasise the fact that the UK's foreign engagement is to prevent any influx by solving the problem abroad: "Development, education and conflict resolution will help reduce the strain and the pressures compelling people to take the uncertain journey to Europe. The Valletta summit in November can be a turning point for addressing the difficult upstream issues on an EU level." But how is bombing Syria a way to destabilise and diffuse pressure in the region?

But Hammond did take the time to express his pride in Britain's history of solidarity with the underdog, and the fact that it "has always been a nation that gives shelter to the most vulnerable."  Last year, the UK received over 31,000 asylum applications and was the fourth largest recipient of resettled refugees – more than France, Denmark and Germany. And yet the people of the UK – with its impressive re-settlement numbers – were shouting for hundreds of thousands more re-settlements on Saturday in Westminster. It is time the government listened to its citizens, not just in the UK, but across Europe as a whole.

Protesters attending a pro-refugee march in London, England on September 12, 2015. Pro-refugee demonstrators demand the UK government to help more refugees fleeing Syria. Images by Anadolu Agency.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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