Terra Incognita: Can Europe have a discussion on migration?

The problem with any discussion about migrants, particularly illegal migration is that it is a third rail of politics that is imbued with racial sensitivities.

A MAN sits on a fence in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Those successfully scaling the fence are entitled to apply for asylum. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN sits on a fence in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Those successfully scaling the fence are entitled to apply for asylum.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Saturday the Ezadeen, a ship that usually carries livestock, was sitting next to a dock in Italy.
Its human cargo of 360 freezing people had been abandoned on the way to Europe. The same day we heard about a massive fight between Afghan and African migrants “to get on lorries” at Calais on the way to the UK. Not long ago it was stories of thousands of men living in caves in Morocco trying to scale fences into Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast.
We have become inured to the dystopian migrant issue because it has gone on so long. It has been a tortured process. In 2003 the leader of Northern League, an Italian political party, encouraged the use of live fire by the Italian Navy to interdict migration. That was considered scandalous. Later we read the tales of the Beduin-run mass rape camps where migrants were tortured with electric cables and plastic melted onto their genitals to elicit ransoms from their families. The New Yorker did an excellent article on Father Zerai, an Eritrean priest who tries to help migrants stranded in these desert murder camps. The story is momentarily harrowing but countries shrug their shoulders.
In the old days perhaps it was considered odd to walk into a part of town in a major European city and find an African slum or a neighborhood where more women wear Islamic headscarves than let their hair blow in the wind. Complaints were made about churches defaced with graffiti, and about “no-go” zones for police. There were the mass riots of the banlieues in 2005, castigated as the “French Intifada,” and riots in the UK in 2011 and in Sweden in 2013. Concomitantly there were the anti-immigration and populist parties that arose in Europe: Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party came to power briefly in 2000 in Austria; Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front came second place in 2002 French presidential elections; the rise and assassination of Pim Fortuyn in Holland, where Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom came in fifth place in 2006; UKIP got almost 30 percent of the votes in European Parliament elections in the UK. And those are just the milestones. Other groups such as the True Finns, Swiss People’s Party, Jobbik, Sweden Democrats, Golden Dawn and the Danish People’s Party have all either expressed extreme anti-immigration views or been accused of doing so. These parties are not always easy to categorize, because some of them primarily express concerns over “Islamification,” but ostensibly welcome other immigrants, who are seen as integrating.
HOW DID it happen that what should not be considered normal is? When I was living in Italy in 2002 we would be feasting at a restaurant and in would walk a Sudanese man who would sidle up to the table and plop stacks of pirated CDs in front of customers. People seemed more bemused than outraged. Italian restaurant owners didn’t know what to make of it; they felt it was rude to ask the migrants to leave. Thus there was seeming acceptance of a situation no one would have accepted had the people walking in been other white Italians.
What I saw at that restaurant was symbolic of the cycle of immigration: disillusionment, anger and division in society. Migrants arrive. Lacking language skills or work documents, they turn to marginal labor and become a permanent underclass living on the seams of society; sometimes in makeshift camps. Marginzalization turns to stigmatization; eventually that noblesse oblige of seeming tolerance turns to resentment. The (sometimes self-inflicted) alienation the migrants feel turns to hatred of state institutions and riots, and the riots are a self-fulfilling prophecy for political parties that object to the newcomers. All the while the state’s institutions, from police to welfare services, increasingly shirk their responsibility.
The problem with any discussion about migrants, particularly illegal migration is that it is a third rail of politics that is imbued with racial sensitivities. The Left tends to have a knee-jerk support for migrants, often based on the view that they are fleeing life-threatening situations and face persecution or genocide in their home countries.
For that reason in some countries, such as Australia, all migrants are referred to as “asylum seekers” by many in the media. Those in the media or politics who say anything negative about migrants are assumed to be racists.
It’s obvious how big the issue is from the headlines: “Libya threatens EU over African migrants”; “Keep HIV-positive migrants out of Britain, says UKIP”; “Italy threatens to send migrants across border”; “Afghan child migrants on rise”; “North African migrants risk lives in Mediterranean”; “World’s deadliest migrant crossing”; “19 boat migrants dead.” In June of 2014 it was reported that 5,200 migrants had been rescued from the sea in just a few days.
But a lot goes unreported and uninvestigated. A ferry that caught fire last week on the way from Greece to Italy had a passenger manifest of 478. The investigators are still throwing up their hands in confusion, with only 427 recorded rescued, 11 confirmed dead and authorities admitting “the ship was indisputably carrying illegal migrants in the hold.”
The way France deals with the immigrant issue is emblematic. Immigrant squatters camps are periodically removed and bulldozed by police, as was done in Calais in June of 2014. Patrick Glennon at Truthout.org writes, “Shortsighted and harmful policies such as those on display in the Calais refugee evictions will become harder to counter, leaving some of the most vulnerable demographics in Europe without help and support.” But what has happened since under the Socialist government? In an interview with some of the 2,000 migrants living in camps in Calais, they claimed, “If you ask for asylum they will say to us come back in three, four months. What am I supposed to do until then?” So they wait with others to illegally jump on trucks crossing to the UK.
An honest discussion must be had about this issue, and not just the tabloid news bits. First of all it is time to stop the one-dimensional discussion about who the migrants are. The 400,000 who were recorded to have crossed the Mediterranean this year are not all “asylum seekers fleeing genocide.” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, claims that governments have an “obligation to receive those seeking asylum.” This legal loophole is not lost on the immigrants, who invariably understand they will be rewarded if they can come up with convincing stories about their lives being in danger.
Afghans crossing a dozen countries to get to Europe are not really asylum seekers; they could have sought asylum in Turkey or Pakistan. They are economic immigrants – as are basically all the migrants. In many cases the trip to Europe is far more dangerous than any ostensible danger to their lives in their home countries. The Syrian immigrants on the ghost ship Ezadeen had all the wherewithal to travel across Turkey and get on a ship. They were not in immediate danger of anything except poverty – which was their motivation for leaving.
This mishandling of the migrant issue is creating massive suffering. Details of thousands inhabiting an abandoned building called the “Salaam Palace” in Rome; or those in camps in Calais; or the hellhole of the backstreets around Omonoia in Athens, where Nigerian girls are forced into prostitution, are examples. The current policy is to ignore the crisis, to pass the problem on to others, or wait for the next conflagration. The alienation and abandonment currently on offer feed a cycle of racism, anti-immigration views and non-integration by the migrants. Anyone who thinks this system is working is badly mistaken and needs to wake up. There is need for a serious, continent-wide discussion and plan. The migration isn’t going to stop, and Europe cannot always be the host continent or outlet for the problems of people around the world.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman