Refugees Are Pouring Into The Divisive Waters Of Europe’s Far-right Politics

The issue of refugees and migrants is complicated and not black and white. In a world wracked by war, civil and ethnic conflict, global inequality and hunger due to droughts and floods triggered by climate change, migration is but natural.

Scurrying to Safety: Refugees arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos in an inflatable boat from Turkey

"No one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border

when home won't let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home

chased you, fire under feet,

hot blood in your belly."

(Warsar Shire British poet)

On June 14 last month, the Adriana, an overcrowded rickety ship carrying around 750 migrants from Libya to Italy, capsized off the Greek coast, drowning nearly 500 of its passengers who had paid as much as $4,500 each to take the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean. These migrants, mainly from Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan and Syria, undertook the perilous journey in search of a better life. Most of them were escaping the grinding poverty at home and hoping to land in Europe for a fresh start. Some like those from Afghanistan and Syria could also have tried to get political asylum, as the European Union law lays down that asylum seekers must arrive in an EU country before they can apply for protection.

A Greek Coast Guard vessel, which had approached the ship, did little to help. In fact, according to some of those who survived, the attempt to tow it to safety made the situation much worse. Those on the coast guard ship claimed the crew refused their help and were bent on going ahead to Italy. Investigations will finally reveal as to who was at fault, but the fact is the boat sank and 500 migrants lost their lives. The UN has called for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the disaster. Similar tragedies in the Mediterranean have not deterred other desperate immigrants to continue the hazardous crossing to reach European shores. Pope Francis had said, “The Mediterranean is a graveyard, which should make us reflect.” Most of them on the trawler were economic migrants.

This is not the first such incident nor will it be the last as desperate people attempt to get to Europe. After each major tragedy, the world wakes up. Despite the anti-migrant policies of governments and the general view that “outsiders” are no longer welcomed, following the sinking of the Adriana, when the survivors were brought ashore, locals in the area came out with food, blankets and medicines to lend a helping hand.

The same thing happened in 2015. The civil war in Syria did not register among ordinary citizens till the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish origin, was washed ashore on the beach of a Turkish resort town. The stark image of the lifeless child in a bright red T-shirt and shorts lying face down momentarily shook Europe’s conscience. Alan and his family were one among 12 Syrians who drowned trying to reach the Greek island of Kos in a bid to escape the civil war in Syria. The family’s ultimate aim was to reach Canada and start a new life.

Nowhere To Go: An art installation to mark the World Day of Migrants in Rome Photo: Getty Images

The single picture of little Alan brought home the full horror of the civil war in Syria, and the world took notice. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel led the way in 2015 by welcoming Syrian refugees to her country. Her people opened their hearts and volunteered to help government authorities to cope with the influx. Germany received over 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Merkel said it was “no more no less than a humanitarian imperative”, and pointed to the fact that it was a true test of “our European values”. She called on her compatriots to reject divisive nationalism, urging them instead to be “self-assured and free, compassionate and open-minded”.

Most of Europe followed Germany’s example. But the love fest did not last as reality sunk in. The mood in Germany as well as the rest of Europe changed as the influx stretched the police and local authorities to the limit. Then came the backlash.

Arson attacks on refugee shelters began. far-right groups spread the message of hate and widened their support base. These elements got a fresh lease of life as many people bought their “othering” argument. Reports of refugees being pelted with banana peels and greeted with Third Reich songs came in from various cities and towns. Attitudes hardened and governments took note. Added to this were the terror attacks across Europe triggered by the rise of Islamic terror groups like ISIS.

The November 2015 Paris attacks killed 130 people, Nice truck attack in July 2016 killed 86, the June attack in Turkey’s Ataturk airport a month earlier led to 45 deaths. The Brussels bombing killed 32 in March 2016, and in May the same year, the Manchester arena bombings killed 22. There were also the Charlie Hebdo attacks where 12 senior cartoonists and the editors of France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed by two Muslim brothers outraged at the depiction of Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons. Islamophobia is widespread, not just in Europe, but worldwide following the terror attacks. It has been in the making since Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in America. There have been several minor terror strikes as well across the world and in Europe. The result was the ramping up of security across every national border and focus on Islamic terror. With the security apparatus in place, it became even more difficult for “outsiders” to seek shelter in neighbouring countries. This is why desperate people are at the mercy of criminals and traffickers that operate the dangerous crossings. Rights groups allege that the latest drowning incident is further evidence and a result of a new pattern in illegal pushbacks of migrant boats to other nations’ waters, with deadly consequences.

Hardened Sentiments

Though refugees and immigrants are not involved in any of this, the sentiment against foreigners seeking asylum has hardened for ordinary citizens. At the moment terror incidents have come down across Europe, but the fear and dislike of “outsiders” was used by Right-wing groups to come into mainstream politics. They are also winning elections, thanks to public support of their views. In Italy, Finland, Greece and Sweden, both the traditional right and the far-right are ruling. And in other Western European democracies too they are getting ready to challenge the old order. In Germany, the far-right’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) is surging, as in France where Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party has a serious chance of upsetting Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential elections. These parties share the same views on immigration, fiscal discipline and conservative values on abortion, LGBT rights and gay marriages. EU parliamentary elections next year could see the far-right and centre right parties, who share common views on immigration, win in large numbers. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the hero for those against immigrants. He has been firm about not allowing immigrants into his country and willing to defy the EU on the issue. “Hungary has found the solution to the migrant crisis: no finished asylum procedure, no entry to the EU. This is the Hungarian system, and it works. Now Brussels wants to destroy it. We will not let this happen. There will be no migrant ghettos under my watch,” Orbán tweeted. His tweet was aimed at the European Parliament resolution calling for a new-EU-wide search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, to avoid tragedies like the one off the Greek coast. Human rights groups have welcomed the EU resolution.


Stricter Punishment

Anti-immigrant sentiment is high among a section of the British public. In fact, one reason for voting for Brexit was to stop taking dictation from the EU on refugee and migration quotas. Last April, Britain’s parliament approved a controversial bill which will mean that asylum-seekers arriving by boats will face up to four years in prison and almost six million people will be eligible to have their British citizenship stripped without notification. The bill envisages opening up offshore detention centres for refugees and asylum seekers who are deemed to have entered “illegally”. Preeti Patel, the UK’s former home secretary, was tough on immigrants. Her suggestion of keeping refugees on remote oil rigs and building a “marine fence” or floating wall in the English channel to keep out illegal immigrants is often dubbed as draconian, dystopian and barbaric by human rights activists. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government decision to send immigrants and asylum seekers to a third country, in this case Rwanda, has been struck down by a British Court. Migration Watch, a British think-tank campaigning against immigrants, recently posted a video on Facebook and YouTube asking people to sign a petition to reduce migration. “Time and again we vote for border control, time and again we are promised it, time and again we are let down. The deception has to stop! Brexit was supposed to give us control, but it hasn’t. … The rights of the British people must come before those of people who choose to come here illegally. We have the right to feel safe in our own country. It is time to override any courts’ demand for our democratic rights for border control.” These are mostly conservative voices and many British people, while calling for better immigration control, also realise that immigrants contribute to the economy.


The “Jungle” in Calais is the biggest refugee camp in France Photo: Getty Images

European governments are struggling between keeping the ideals of universal human rights and lending a helping hand to migrants and asylum seekers and balancing it with the fear of the Right-wing gaining political ground, riding on people’s concerns about migrants from the Global South.

The war in Ukraine has led to around 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees crossing into Europe. But Ukrainian refugees were welcomed with open arms across Europe. Allegations of racism in the treatment of White Christian middle-class refugees who look and behave like “us” led to allegations of racism. And questions arose about genuine refugees and migrants. The result has been much quibbling among politicians, academics, liberals, conservatives and rights groups on who is a refugee and who is an immigrant.


But these technical distinctions are not important. The fact is that they are people in dire need and were forced to leave their homeland either because of conflict, political suppression or extreme poverty, triggered not just by bad governance but also by the devastating effects of climate change on communities.

A challenge in relation to how states manage and regulate migration is that access to applying for asylum is hard.

“I would argue that refugees are also migrants, and all migrants are human with equal human rights. Refugees are a legal sub-group of migrants—depending on the legal frameworks in different contexts, somewhat differently identified,” says Marta Bivand Erdal, research professor in migration studies at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. While agreeing that the needs of both groups may indeed be similar, she explains the division has to do with legal rights: to obtain the status of a refugee, you have to seek asylum. “Why does this matter? It matters as in terms of applying for asylum in Europe—many have few other options other than crossing irregularly in order to do so. Now, a challenge in relation to how states manage and regulate migration is that access to applying for asylum is hard. And that the number of routes open to regular and orderly migration in the spirit of the Global Compact on migration is too limited,” she adds. While agreeing that the needs of both groups are similar, she explains the division has to do with the legal rights that refugees have to seek to get asylum.


Europe can also see the immigrants as a boon and not a curse. Europe is ageing and migrants can easily fill the gap on shop floors and factories as well as the service sector. Most people acknowledge that immigrant workers had contributed tremendously to make western European economies as robust as they are today, despite the current downturn thanks to Covid-induced lockdowns.

“The tragic irony is often that European countries need the workforce, but haven’t yet developed adequate skills-matching programmes for prospective migrants who might want to work in the lower-skilled or skilled sectors in a European country’s labour market. These are things being worked on with bilateral programmes between many countries. Yet to date, the efforts are inadequate,” says Erdal.


The issue of refugees and migrants is complicated and not black and white. In a world wracked by war, civil and ethnic conflict, global inequality and hunger due to droughts and floods triggered by climate change, migration is but natural. Migrations have risen steeply and for the first few months of this year, January to March, 36,000 people arrived on Europe shores, a steep hike from the corresponding arrivals last year.  

“Clearly, search and rescue efforts are essential, but beyond this, really realising commitments made in the Global Compact on Migration, with more options for regular migration—where we know there are real needs for people to work, and for them to work in dignity with workers’ rights, even if on temporary arrangements, seems to be one important aspect of solutions. Another issue clearly relates to managing opportunities ‘back home’ including future prospects, which is a political responsibility also of leaders in countries where migrants are leaving,” says Erdal. Yes, the home nations also have a duty to ensure good governance that will keep immigrants rooted to the soil.

(This story appeared in the print as 'Europe's Conundrum')