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Following this refugee crisis, could Europe become like the Middle East?

Ongoing violence in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and other parts of the world creates pessimism and forces us to confront some fairly horrible questions. “Can the fire that burns the Middle East right now spread to Europe with this refugee crisis?” is one. Put another way, will the mass migration make Europe an extension of the Middle East — with all of its social problems and sectarianism — in the future?

Such questions do not just arise out of the all-pervading pessimism. They have to be considered in the light of some very certain factual dynamics.

It is clear that, as it tries to cope with the refugee crisis, Europe has not considered that it could be affected directly by the problems of the Middle East. The region has been unstable since the supposed end of colonialism and the beginning of the ongoing chronic Palestine-Israel problem. The EU has not been able to agree on the means of sharing 120,000 refugees for months but there have always been refugees seeking to move to Europe. The main policy developed against this movement has been to make the borders more secure. However, the current crisis demonstrates that Europe did not foresee that its precautions could collapse under the strong collective will of people fleeing from death and destruction. In this sense, Europe has been caught unawares, which is why temporary refugee reception centres have sprung up in cities near its borders.

The refugee crisis must be considered as an aspect of globalisation in that it is a global problem. According to UNCHR data, there are around 60 million people who have been forced to leave their homeland. Not only is the crisis global, but it also illustrates the fact that economic or political problems can cross borders and come closer to home. What we are seeing now could lead to an unstable Middle East creating instability in Europe and other developed regions.

In this sense, the unexpected mass influx of refugees could see Europe experiencing a deeper crisis, and push it to reconsider its domestic and foreign policies. As an advocate of peace, the EU has had many failures over the past two decades. After the introduction of the Euro as the single common currency in 2000, Europe failed to implement the European Constitution. That was a turning point for the union on the way to becoming a united federal state. Later economic crises prompted a discussion about the possible failure of the Euro currency. Along with other issues, this has suggested a number of catastrophic scenarios about the future of the EU. The most recent failure of the union and its “open border” policy between member states was the erection of border fences to keep refugees out, as we have seen along the Hungarian border with Serbia. Likewise, we have also seen the suspension of the Schengen Agreement, which established freedom to travel between most European countries, as the number of asylum seekers has increased; Germany, the Netherlands and Slovakia have applied border controls. Such precautions might become permanent, which will be a setback for the basic concept of the EU.

Europe’s politics have seen a noticeable shift to the right, with far-right parties existing in almost all European countries; some can claim around 20 per cent of the votes in recent polls, which has to be damaging for social cohesion and stability. While there remains a strong anti-fascist movement in many EU countries, it is a worrying development that the likes of Pegida in Germany can muster strong support for anti-migrant rallies.

It is obvious that most if not all of the 315,000 refugees who have arrived in Europe over the past six months, mainly Syrians, will not be temporary residents. Not only is the situation in their home country unlikely to be resolved in the near future, and so they will be unable and unwilling to return, but they will be scattered around the continent and thus very difficult to depot en masse. Their presence is fuelling the rise of the far-right.

“If we go on with the chaos and confusion that we have,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Euronews on 15 September, “it is a tragedy for the people themselves and it is a tragedy for Europe and the union.” The only way to avoid this tragedy in Europe is related closely to the success of integrating refugees within European societies. That is not a foregone conclusion, as such efforts have not been particularly successful in the past. Aside from the xenophobes who do not want to welcome the refugees, there are also among the refugees themselves people who would not want to be integrated. There is an expectation that European societies must adopt to the migrants rather than the reverse. The situation is ripe for social segregation and the creation of ghettos unless compromise can be reached on both sides. Failure to adapt could lead to polarisation between EU citizens and migrants and a deepening of the economic and social crisis.

One of the basics underpinning migration theories is that cultures also migrate, including traditions, identities, ideologies, collective memories and so on. While people maintain a collective identity in the utopian hope that they will somehow be able to protect and nurture it completely, they are likely to be disappointed. The public goodwill which has stung governments into action following the images of Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach in Turkey is likely to wither away in due course. If and when xenophobic arguments about refugees putting a strain on the welfare state and “taking jobs” from locals begin to take hold in the popular conscience, the current goodwill may dissipate. At that stage, there would be no need to explain it away by talk of far-right parties coming to power in Europe; the talk will be about the “Middle Easternisation” of Europe. That will be a catastrophic scenario.

The writer is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Namik Kemal Unversity, Tekidag, Turkey.

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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