Why migrants are Europe’s litmus test

There is an inexorable link in public discourse between terror attacks and the migrant crisis. How Europe deals with the situation will be a true test of its ideals.

April 04, 2016 01:38 am | Updated September 20, 2016 02:43 pm IST

“At the moment, there are over 49,000 migrants in Greece in overcrowded and squalid camps.” Migrants leave a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, after Macedonia decided to close its border to migrants. Photo: Getty images

“At the moment, there are over 49,000 migrants in Greece in overcrowded and squalid camps.” Migrants leave a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, after Macedonia decided to close its border to migrants. Photo: Getty images

It did not take long after the > terror attack in Brussels on March 22 morning for the predictable to happen. First was the immediate association made in public discourse between the attacks and the > migrant crisis , the argument being that the Islamic State (IS), which claimed responsibility for the attacks, was sending in armed jihadists with the vast migrant flow coming into Europe. Second was the hardening of Euroscepticism and mounting criticism against the open border policy of the Schengen bloc. These positions are not representative of majority public or political opinion yet, but with the IS expected to step up its acts of targeted terror in Europe as a response to the reverses its forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq are facing, the misconceptions have gained considerable traction. The conflict over migrant policy within the countries of the European Union can only strengthen the jihadist project, as commentators have pointed out, and threaten the safety of the thousands who are fleeing from conflict and jihadist terror in West Asia and northern Africa.

Anti-migrant sentiment

The first sign of the spurt in anti-migrant and, more worryingly, anti-Muslim sentiment was the appearance of the hashtag #StopIslam which started trending on social media worldwide. Visual media outlets illustrated this for viewers as inkblots of blinking red lights on a world map. Then came a spate of anti-migrant statements from media spokespersons and political leaders. The Polish government announced that it was suspending its commitment to take in its share of migrants, and reports of attacks against immigrants in the country and elsewhere in Europe surfaced.

In the U.K., which is due for a referendum on June 23 > to decide whether it will stay or leave the EU , the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is in the forefront of Brexit, used the Brussels attack to reiterate its anti-immigration and anti-migrant policies. UKIP’s head Nigel Farage said that EU border rules had led to “the free movement of terrorists, of criminal gangs, and of Kalashnikovs”.

A large section of the Western media played into this fear with warnings that the largely immigrant municipality of Molenbeek in Brussels, where some of the jihadists hid and operated from, had become the “capital of international terrorism and jihadism” even as the residents of the district, both alarmed and saddened by the presence of jihadists amidst them, suffered the scrutiny of media teams from across the world seeking to reinforce the unfair notoriety the area has gained.

“The new focus on three things — Islam in general and the conflation of 1.6 billion people with the acts of three people in Brussels, the worrying association of the attacks with migrants, and threats to the Schengen area — are alarming. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if you can travel freely between different countries, you will perpetrate an act of terrorism,” said Jack Holland, Associate Professor in International Security at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

Pointing to the lack of evidence linking refugees and migrants to terror attacks, he said: “Such attacks are usually perpetrated by local actors. In previous terrorist attacks you have had people travelling back and forth to Syria. So, again you have the creation of refugees as a potential suspect community. This is an extremely large group of people who are already facing severe insecurities. If you also conflate terrorist activities with them, it is only going to make life harder.”

In Europe, where job insecurities have fed into threat perceptions on the erosion that immigration poses to national identity, right-wing xenophobic parties have gained ground. An incident of sexual abuse of women on New Year’s night in Cologne by migrant youth was linked in public perception to the terror attacks, strengthening the popular belief that the EU has no effective policy to address either terrorism or migrant flows. In Germany, which has promised to relocate the largest number of the 1.3 million asylum applications in the EU, the liberal immigration policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel have contributed to the defeat of her party to the hard-right Alternative for Germany party in two of three regional elections held two weeks ago.

“We can say that Schengen is finished,” argues Marcus Papadopoulos, editor of Politics First . “I think the attacks in Brussels and Paris have confirmed that in the minds of ordinary people in the EU.” On the issue of the migrants, he says the big waves of recent migration are a direct response to Western foreign policy interventions in West Asia. The migrant surge first came from Afghanistan and Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was followed by migration from conflict zones in North Africa through Libya that followed the intervention of Britain and France in Libya in 2011. Most recent is the migrant exodus from Syria, which began after Western intervention in that country in 2013. “The common denominator is the foreign policy of Western governments. They are ultimately responsible for the appalling attacks in Brussels and Paris.”

EU-Turkey agreement The > controversial agreement signed between the EU and Turkey last week, intended to seal illegal migration, has been criticised by aid agencies as inhumane and violative of EU law. An illegal immigrant now arriving in Greece through the Aegean Sea route can be expected to be sent back to Turkey if the person does not apply for asylum or his claim is rejected. The EU will in turn take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. For Turkey, the EU has promised to fast track its membership talks and has upped its financial aid significantly. Turkey today hosts three million Syrian refugees, more than any other country.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has criticised the EU-Turkey deal as illegal and a violation of human rights. According to Vincent Cochetel, the organisation’s Europe regional director, the “collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights”, while Amnesty International called it a “historic blow to human rights”.

Besides, the deal has not had the intended effect. There are currently over 49,000 migrants in Greece in overcrowded and squalid camps waiting for asylum in Europe, and the numbers have grown since the EU-Turkey deal.

“We are in the middle of nowhere,” said Maria Laura Franciosi, an Italian journalist based in Brussels. “The EU is based on a defence of human values, and it is allowing refugees to be used as a weapon by the Daesh.” The ideals of a united Europe committed to a humanitarian approach to the mass displacement of people fleeing conflict are under test.


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