Walls and death: Europe’s refugee crisis is a crisis of politics

September 10, 2016
Cartoon by Carlos Latuff.

The situation is deteriorating in “the Jungle” — the informal settlement in the northern French port of Calais of refugees trying to reach Britain.

French police demolished the southern half earlier this year, yet the population is steadily rising and has surpassed 10,000. Neglected by governments and NGOs, the volunteers who provide food, clothing and other aid are receiving fewer donations to assist the growing population. Hunger has become prevalent, along with diseases caused by lack of sanitation.

Increased security to thwart the refugees’ attempts to cross the Channel and reach Britain has meant that refugees are remaining in the Jungle longer. This has fuelled a rise in mental health issues and violence between desperate refugees.

The growth of the Jungle, like the growth of equally squalid refugee camps and settlements in Greece — collectively housing about 60,000 people — is not because the number of refugees in Europe (about 0.5% of the population) is too high for them to be properly accommodated. Rather, it is the result of racist policies by national governments creating bottlenecks.

As diplomatic squabbling between Britain and France over who should take responsibility for the refugees in Calais continues, British immigration minister Robert Goodwill announced on September 7 a solution seemingly inspired by Donald Trump – spending £1.9 million (A$3.3 million) on building a 4 metre high concrete wall around the Jungle.

Britain has already paid for the razor wire fencing surrounding the settlement.

Meanwhile, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told the September 2 Nord Littoral that the Jungle would be demolished in stages. The French government has tried to pressure Britain into processing refugees in France by threatening to revoke the 2003 Le Touquet accord. This accord allows British officials to check passports in France and vice-versa.

Residents of the Jungle generally spend their nights trying to stow away on trucks, trains and ferries crossing the Channel. Many are injured in the attempt, some killed. Beatings and gassing by French police is routine for those caught, including children.

Liz Clegg, a British volunteer looking after some of the estimated 600–800 unaccompanied children in the Jungle “in the absence of help from any mainstream children’s charities,” told the April 29 Guardian: “They have all experienced brutality at the hands of the police, being pushed off lorries, punched and kicked. They say they have had teargas sprayed into their mouths.

“That has been a lot of the children’s experience in France and that is part of the reason why they are not engaging with France. You can understand why they feel as they do.”

Some refugees are successful in their bids to reach Britain. However, the number of refugees reaching Britain is well below the European average. The BBC reported on March 4 that last year, Britain received 60 asylum seekers per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 260 per 100,000 inhabitants for the European Union.

On top of this, the number of refugees in Europe, like other wealthy Western countries, is low by global standards.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of December 31, 2014, there were an estimated 59.5 million people displaced by persecution and conflict. Of these, 38.2 million were “internally displaced persons”, meaning they had not crossed any international borders.

The overwhelming majority of those who had left their country of origin had fled to poor countries that are often themselves afflicted with conflict and violence.

Of the 10 countries with highest numbers of refugees, five are in Africa, four in the Middle East and one in South Asia. All are desperately poor and most are also countries from which significant numbers of refugees also flee.

Two related factors help create the gulf between the perception of Europe being flooded by refugees and reality. One is politics. Right-wing media outlets and politicians play up the “threat” of refugees to create scapegoats for the effects of neoliberal policies on living standards.

This racist scapegoating is also used by politicians in other rich Western countries. In the US, Trump has made building a wall on the border with Mexico the centre of his presidential election bid.

In Australia — where the number of refugees is tiny even in comparison with Europe or the US — sadistic persecution of refugees has become the electoral staple of both sides of mainstream politics.

In Europe, this scapegoating has fuelled the rise of far-right parties, prompting mainstream parties to take an even more anti-refugee stance.

That scapegoating refugees creates a perception divorced from reality is reflected in the fact throughout the Western world, racist policies are most electorally successful in areas with the least numbers of refugees and other migrants.

This was true for the Brexit referendum in Britain. Anti-refugee sentiment helped fuel the vote to leave the EU, but the Brexit vote was highest in economically deprived areas with small numbers of refugees and migrants. Economically deprived areas with higher migrant and refugee populations generally voted to remain in the EU.

It is also true with the success of the extreme right-wing Alliance for Germany (AfD) in September 4 elections in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The economically marginalised former East German state not only has a small migrant and refugee population — it, ironically, has a declining and ageing population as young people leave the predominantly rural state in search of better educational and employment opportunities.

“We need to work on the divisions within society and try to reduce the gap between rich and poor,” Katja Maurer, spokesperson for the refugee advocacy organisation Medico, told Deutsche Welle on September 7.

“These are the real issues,” Maurer said. “The refugees are just a scapegoat onto which people project their fears of social decline.

“It's a joke to think that 1 million refugees could be responsible for people's economic fears … It's not a communication problem: it's a political one. The AfD is getting votes in places with next to no refugees, so it's clearly a case of projection. The situation won't change if there are no more refugees.”

The second factor is that the closed border policies of the rich countries create humanitarian disasters. In Australia, the humanitarian disaster of offshore and onshore detention is, at least, orderly in appearance — asylum seekers are locked away in concentration camps on geographically remote islands.

The European far right, joined increasingly by mainstream parties, look to Australia as an example for “solving” the refugee crisis. However, Australia's hard-line refugee policies are only possible because the number of refugees attempting to find asylum in Australia is so small to begin with.

Australia spends a staggering $1.2 billion on detaining about 1300 refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. Also, $55 million dollars was spent — mostly on bribes to the government — on resettling just two refugees in Cambodia. Obviously, such a “solution” could not be applied in Europe.

This has meant that closed border policies in Europe are more ad hoc and the results more chaotic. The Jungle is one such result. Mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the consequence of land borders being closed, is another.

The refugee crisis in Greece is the result of closed borders. Last year, a relatively large number of refugees entered Europe by making the relatively short sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, then trekking overland to western and northern Europe. However, as countries to the north fortified their borders, the refugees became stranded in Greece, which is one of the poorest European countries and becoming steadily poorer as a result of European Union-imposed austerity.

This has led to 60,000 refugees without healthcare and relying on charities for food. Some refugees are housed in makeshift camps, often in factories closed because of the Greece's economic woes. Others sleep rough in the streets. Young refugee men selling sex in public parks has become common.

The EU’s response to the refugee crisis it created in Greece was an agreement with Turkey in March. Under this deal in return for €6 billion, a blind eye to Turkey’s human rights abuses and an easing of visa restriction for Turkish citizens in the EU, Turkey would close its borders and accept Syrian refugees sent back from the EU.

This deal has only been partially implemented. Greek authorities have been reluctant to deport refugees to Turkey because of the appalling human rights record of the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And the EU has been reluctant to grant the easing on visa restrictions for Turkish citizens or pay the full €6 billion.

The number of refugees sent back to Turkey has been small, but the number of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece has dramatically reduced. This has meant that numbers of those attempting the longer, and therefore more dangerous, crossing from Libya to Italy has risen. The August 3 Independent reported that so far this year, 2920 people had died in the attempt.

Absent from the mainstream debate on refugees has been discussion of the West’s role in creating the humanitarian catastrophes from which they flee. Many come from Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that have been victims of Western military aggression.

In the past few years, Syrians have made a large proportion of refugees, fleeing a gruesome civil war fuelled by Western intervention and interference.

Somalia, Ivory Coast, Chad and the Central African Republic are all countries that have suffered Western military intervention and are the origin of large numbers of refugees.

But even where refugees are not fleeing Western military aggression or Western fuelled conflicts, they are fleeing countries where economic and social collapse is the result of Western-imposed neoliberal economic policies.

The West’s closed borders policies bring these humanitarian catastrophes home. On April 13, The Guardian reported that the German interior ministry said 6000 refugee children were reported missing in Germany last year.

“European Union estimates that at least 10,000 child refugees had disappeared after arriving in the continent were ‘very likely to be underestimate’, a senior official at UNICEF warned on the day the German numbers were released,” the Guardian said.

The Guardian said: “A third of the 420 unaccompanied minors in the Calais camp have gone missing since the French authorities demolished the southern section of the Jungle.”

There is an alternative. Left-wing political forces, such as Podemos in Spain and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are proposing humane policies towards refugees, as well as ending the militarily and economically predatory foreign policies that create refugees. Their anti-neoliberal economic policies provide real solutions to the problems that refugees are scapegoated for.

However, the racist consensus in Europe still ascendant. This means many refugees there, like their counterparts in Australia's Pacific Island concentration camps, have lost any illusions in the countries to which they are fleeing.

Marwan is a 17-year-old Syrian who, like many of the unaccompanied minors, is entitled to be settled in Britain under British law as his mother lives there. Yet he remains stranded in the Jungle, telling The Guardian: “I’m dreaming of going back, to have my childhood back, in Syria. Fuck England. Fuck Europe.”

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