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Europe’s colonial amnesia and its repercussions for the migrant and refugee crisis

The daily updates I receive from volunteers working in Calais and on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios are heart-breaking. As I sat to write this, a volunteer nurse from Denmark described her night shift to me, driving up and down the coast of Chios, turning off all lights with the other volunteers in order to be able to see the refugee boats come in. They stand outside, listening for the smallest sounds over the beating of the merciless winter waves. Another volunteer from Lesbos told me that they sometimes receive as many as 800 to 1,000 people on the Greek island during such night shifts.

It is snowing in Greece; people are sleeping in all available empty buildings and under cardboard boxes. Families try to huddle together and keep warm having survived the dangerous sea crossing.

If Europe can only conduct the “refugee debate” based on the Cologne attacks or the Danes’ “catastrophe” of not being able to serve pork in the kindergartens, or by emphasising the “issue” of a Muslim woman having to learn English in order to rid herself of “backwards attitudes”, then the political and media discourse has sunk to an all-time low.

Believing politicians’ words to increase Europe’s phobia of Islam and Arabs amongst Britain’s multicultural population is not coincidental media hype, but is very much coupled to the justification of the newly-tightened immigration and asylum measures to be implemented next month. Furthermore, the authorities are now lashing out against cross-border interaction and aid to places resisting the concept of “fortress Europe”; the closed border regulations between Britain and France, for example, which have left the displaced people in the “Jungle” of Calais extremely vulnerable. The French authorities tear-gassed innocent residents of the camp, bulldozed their humble tents and refused to let volunteers cross from Britain to aid the migrants. Meanwhile, the mainstream British media have been obsessed with the fact that the migrants refused resettlement by the local authorities in Calais in what are little more than heated transport containers, thus forcing them to seek asylum in France and ending their hopes of getting to Britain.

The people stuck in Calais are caught between two major colonial powers which must bear responsibility for much of the violence and destruction which has driven refugees from their homes in the Middle East and beyond. Their awful situation is very relevant in trying to understand the colonial legacy and Europe’s obsession with borders and fear of the immense efforts by civil society to help the migrants even as they are curbed by European governments. Why is Europe so scared these days? Why are we busy “Othering” within and without, strengthening borders and scaring away volunteers keen to help fellow human beings in desperate need?

An interesting introspection of Europe was made this month by the academic journal Intervention,[1] which looked at the “point of Europe”, deciphering its colonial entanglements against its current migration crisis. The reason why Europe is so afraid at this time could be that the situation has prompted a realisation of the need to decode the “Black Box” of the continent’s colonial memory. It is Europe’s colonial amnesia and complicated relationships with its ex-colonies that have determined its notions of sovereignty, unjustifiably so. The box remains un-decoded. This is an uncomfortable truth that no one wants to hear about, let alone try to relate to the refugee and migration influx, even though it is self-evident.

A recent article in Britain’s Independent newspaper listed “5 of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Empire” and highlighted the controversial results of a YouGov poll which suggested that 43 per cent of the population still believe that the empire was a good thing; only 19 per cent thought it was bad, with a quarter having no view either way. It is probably safe to say that the British educational system does not focus too much on the negative colonial legacies that people still have to live with on a daily basis. The British have instead been subject to a mainstream media and government strategy to “prevent” radicalisation which insists on a modern-day colonial-style project to “educate” the Other; in the latest case, this refers to Muslim women in a “drive to combat backwards attitudes”. This replicates Britain’s colonial rhetoric about imperial “subjects” in Africa, the Middle East and India in years gone by.

According to Dr Rosemarie Buikema, Europe needs to define itself another way and find new signposts and pointers, as well as acknowledge its dark legacy, which still needs to be decoded. We need to contest the idea of Europe and European history as being built on singularity and exceptionalism; perhaps even open up the concept of Europe as a project in the making and yet to fulfil its potential.

Dr Sandra Ponzanesi, Professor of Gender and Postcolonial Studies in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, believes that the question of migration to Europe cannot be solved by creating a “European Fortress” or tightening laws. Europe, she has said, can do it through postcolonial deconstruction to understand why and what led people to flee from their homelands.

“The disavowal of multiculturalism by leading European politicians,” explained Ponzanesi, “plus the recent Euro [financial] crisis and accompanying austerity measures that have exacerbated Europe’s politics of resentment, have reduced the role and understanding of cosmopolitanism in its inclusion of difference and minorities.” She has summarised French philosopher Étienne Balibar’s contributions on European citizenship and political identities.

What we are witnessing is what Balibar describes as the moment when postcolonial entanglements conjoin with the post-socialist reality, intersected by Islam, the Mediterranean migrant crisis and terrorism in Syria and the Middle East. We need a new understanding of postcolonial European cosmopolitanism that can include differences and pluralities.

[1] (2016) ‘The Point of Europe: Postcolonial Entanglements,’ in: Interventions, 18:2, DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2015.1106962

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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