Migrants, Refugees and the EU: An Explanation

The drafting and subsequent legal battles that have accompanied the Trump Administration’s Executive Order suspending the US refugee program has created a frenzy of social media outrage usually reserved for a Beyonce pregnancy announcement (well, perhaps not quite that much). In so doing, an incredibly complex geopolitical dilemma has been reduced to Facebook posts and memes that result in an understanding of the issue that is cursory at best, and dangerously inaccurate at its worst.

Simultaneously, the rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe with visibly isolationist platforms creates exponentially more confusion about who goes where, why they go, how they get there and what they do within the 28 member states of the EU. The conflation of recent US initiatives towards halting immigration from seven different majority Muslim countries with an apprehension towards Islam lends credibility to a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory that has been circulating through both academic and popular discourse for decades. That theory, developed by Samuel Huntington in 1993, tells of the next great conflict as predicated not on resources or ideologies but on fundamental and intractable cultural fault lines that will collide and create large scale conflicts with no practicable solutions.

Of course, in practice, things are rarely so simple. First, the recent refugee crises in the EU are not the first with which the bloc has been confronted. The civil war in the former Yugoslavia resulted in more than 2 million internally displaced persons who headed to the safety of the European Union in the early 1990’s, and since then the yearly number of asylum seekers into the EU has not dipped below 200,000. Moreover, of the more than 65 million internally displaced peoples worldwide only 1-2 million people make it to the EU, whose population of more than 500 million makes these refugees a very small percentage of the aggregate population.

Because of the utter complexity of these and other questions, I used Google Trends to identify the most common inquiries about refugee policy in the EU and the impact of it on European politics, and have done my level best to answer these questions in a handy primer (Forbes has used the same tools for a great article of their own). Wherever possible, I have used sources and data directly from the EU and other international organizations that work directly on migrant and refugee policy, and tried to condense and simplify the answers without compromising the information.

What is the EU doing about migrants, immigration, and refugees?

First, there is an important distinction to be made about migrants, immigrants, and refugees both in the EU and globally. Immigrants to the EU can come from anywhere in the world and under a variety of different pretenses: study, work, retirement, or writing that novel they’ve had burning inside of them for 20 years. The foolhardy contingent known as ‘expats’ (of which this author is one) falls into this group, and they are rarely the focus of any political ire or humanitarian policy (unless they ask for ketchup on everything).

Migrants may enter the EU for economic opportunity in the broadest sense, or more specifically because of poverty in their country of origin which places them or their families in danger of starvation. Because migrants may be coming from countries that are considered ‘safe’ under international conventions, they may be refused entry and sent home if their claims to stay in the EU are denied. This does not mean that their journeys are without risk; indeed, the tens of thousands of migrants who come to the EU through ‘irregular’ means often do so through smugglers or organized crime groups, and fatalities can be quite high. The International Organization for Migration lists more than 7,500 deaths in the Mediterranean in 2016, most of them by drowning in makeshift boats or being locked below deck in order to avoid detection. According to Frontex, the EU agency that handles border security, these journeys can cost up to €10,000 ($13,000) for a family.

Refugees are a different category under international law and are defined as people who cannot seek protection in their own country due to “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” These are groups who have either been forced to flee their countries of origin due to war or other kinds of systematic persecution, such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (where refugees fled to neighboring Congo en masse), the aforementioned Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing, or Jewish refugees in World War II. Most recently, Syrians have been forced to flee their country due to the civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and a number of rebel groups, as well as the violence and persecution of the Islamic State (or Daesh). Estimates have the number of Syrians scattered throughout Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt at nearly 5 million, with nearly 1 million seeking refuge in Europe, North America, and Australia. A further 6 million are thought to be internally displaced.

According to the Dublin Regulation, the first EU country of entry is supposed to handle the asylum claim that a refugee files, though this is sometimes waived if a refugee has family or other ties in a different member state. However, the Dublin Regulation has come under considerable fire in recent months, especially by member states such as Hungary, which does not want to allow any person of Muslim origin into the country. In addition, because some countries are closer points of entry (Greece, Italy, Spain, Macedonia, Bulgaria) they simply do not have the resources to handle the influx of asylum seekers, so the system’s flaws have been laid bare.

Of course, the channels by which economic migrants and refugees travel are often the same, so it becomes very difficult to tell whose claim is valid under the Refugee Convention and who comes from a ‘safe’ country. Moreover, those from ‘safe’ countries often argue that there’s nothing ‘safe’ about living in poverty with no way out but to risk their lives.

What are the differences between immigration in the EU and the US?

Put simply, considerable. The United States has had its fair share of refugee influxes throughout its history: the Mariel Boatlift famously brought 125,000 Cuban asylum seekers to Miami in 1980 when Fidel Castro decided that any Cubans who wanted to leave should be allowed through the port of Mariel. What followed was a mass exodus of unskilled laborers, criminals and political dissidents that increased the workforce of Miami by 8% in one day and allowed the movie Scarface to have an awesome opening sequence. Since then, refugees and asylum seekers have fluctuated, and in 2016 the highest numbers of refugees came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the United States benefits from two oceans that separate it from the largest landmass in the world and filing asylum claims to get into the country are notoriously difficult (yes, even before the Executive Order).

Moreover, while the EU has a common refugee policy (as signatories to the Geneva Refugee Convention, along with the United States) each member state is responsible for their own asylum policies, and they diverge wildly. Some states (Italy, Greece) are more prone to refugee flows because of their location and thus will take in more refugees; others (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria) have said they will ‘never accept one Muslim’ into the country and still others (Germany) have instituted an open door policy for asylum seekers resulting in more than 1 million refugees making their way there. Therefore, while it may seem that the EU is a unified bloc from the outside, internally, the member states cover the spectrum of ideologies, policies, and approaches. Corralling these into a cohesive policy and enforcing it along open borders is challenging, to say the very least (which may be why Hungary decided to erect a barbed wire border fence, evoking some very unfortunate images of previous decades).

Are refugees responsible for more crime in Europe?

Probably not. While there was a justifiable uproar over the reports of widespread sexual assaults in Cologne and throughout Germany on New Year’s Eve 2016, the portrayal of the assailants as predominantly refugees were erroneous, with only 3 of the 446 men accused actually having refugee status. Indeed, many of the assailants were described alternatively as ‘Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian or American’ in their profiles, or ‘having the appearance of being foreign.'  Migrants are thought to be responsible for more than 69,000 crimes in Germany in 2016, but these offenders largely hailed from Serbia, Northern Africa and Georgia (‘safe’ countries), not countries whose citizens are considered asylum seekers. Indeed there is no evidence that refugees have increased crime figures in Germany although crimes against refugees have increased since 2015.  The Hoaxmap project has compiled a list of the crimes reported to have been committed by refugees and revealed to be false claims or invented stories, with more than 300 claims debunked on the site.

Of course, it isn’t petty crime that everyone is so worried about, but the idea that among asylum seekers and refugees breathing to be free there will be a terrorist among them, and that the compassion of the EU will be returned with a massacre in one of it many centers. Even the smallest evidence of an uptick in crime from those perceived as outsiders is enough to stoke the fire of suspicion until it explodes, and such spectacular tragedies such as the 2015 Paris Massacres, the Nice and Berlin killings, and the Brussels airport bombing are cautionary tales for those who don’t choose hypervigilance. While true, and incredibly challenging, it is worth pointing out that in the Paris Massacres the assailants were predominantly French and Belgian nationals, with two men identified as potentially pretending to be asylum seekers. The driver in the Nice Bastille Day attack was a French citizen of Tunisian origin, as was the main suspect in the Berlin Christmas Market attack. The Brussels Airport bombings were also perpetrated by Belgian nationals of Moroccan descent as well as a Swedish-born Syrian. Thus while vetting remains an essential part of the process of allowing asylum seekers to enter countries, it is not from these asylum seekers that the greatest threat has historically come. 

Are refugees bringing Islam into Europe?

Not even close. The Muslim and European worlds have co-existed, and even formed in a kind of symbiosis that dates back to the Silk Road and the Crusades, with even Saint Augustine living in what is now Algeria thousands of years ago. The Moors conquered Spain and left behind some of its most important cultural artifacts, and large Muslim populations are indigenous to Europe, notably in Bosnia and Kosovo. There is, however, a notable increase in the anxiety surrounding Muslims in Europe with a surprising number of people supporting actions like the Executive Order drafted by the Trump Administration and pushing for similar actions in Europe. However, while anti-Muslim sentiment is currently high, it is not due to the sudden appearance of Muslims in Europe but rather to a much more complex combination of political, social, economic and cultural factors which would take more time to explain that this short space allows.

So, what’s up with France?

It cannot go unnoticed that France has been a particular target for attacks with three high profile incidents (the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Paris Massacres, and the Nice Bastille Day attack) striking at the very heart of the symbolic universe that defines the Republic. However, the relationship between the French state and the more than 5 million Muslims living in the country is one of the more complicated in all of Europe, and dates significantly back to the French occupation of Algeria from 1830-1962, when the Algerian War of Independence (called the Algerian Civil War in France) made Algeria an independent state with a profound and enduring connection to France.

As a result of the ties between the two countries (Algeria was, after all, a part of France, not a colony) the years before, during and after independence brought millions of Algerians to France as workers, and later these single men were permitted to remain in the country and have their families join them. Housed in the notorious banlieue or, suburban housing estates, the subsequent generations would grow up in what is known as the ‘double absence’: rejected from what it meant to be ‘French’ (think intellectual, wine savvy, cheese literate) and divorced from what it meant to be a real ‘Arab’ (think, not living in the Arab world). France is teeming with young men and women who fall into these cracks, coming from all over North Africa and being grouped into the same societal subset. The exclusion and marginalization that an entire generation has become convinced is the only way that they can expect to be treated by a Western liberal state is an ideal breeding ground for the kind of inclusion that radical movements promise. Neither refugees nor migrants, it is these populations who have nothing to lose and who stand poised to explode.

Finally, the rise of the right in France is also not new, as the Front National of Marine le Pen has been peddling an extreme xenophobia and protectionism for more than 40 years. Begun by Jean-Marie le Pen in 1972, the party has extolled the benefits of deportations, closing the borders of France, and a version of ethnic citizenship since its inception, incidentally not far from Marseille, the French city with the highest concentration of Muslims, Arabs, and Africans for more than 5000 years (Phoenicians were particularly fond of its climate). That the daughter le Pen has seen an opportunity in gaining ground due to the rising climate of anti-immigrant sentiment and has used it to her advantage should be no surprise to anyone who has been watching, particularly as the Socialists in France have crumbled. However, her victory is predicated on a French population losing its memory (and its mind):  the elder le Pen was famously fined for his remarks denying the Holocaust, and his daughter’s recent remarks that French citizens will have to renounce their Israeli citizenship if she is elected have not done much to distinguish her, nor will it convince the majority of French voters that she is the candidate to keep them safe.

So, is it a Clash of Civilisations?

Well, that’s a loaded question. Certainly, if one looks for evidence of a ‘Clash of Civilizations,' one is sure to find it; if not in the missives of Islamic fundamentalism than in the speeches of men like Steve Bannon. However, politics is perception, and if a threat is perceived, it may be of little consequence that the threat is highly unlikely. We have grown to fear the huddled masses because we cannot be sure of what they hide within them, and the fear of something like a terror attack leaves us all feeling an intense vulnerability because we do not know where, when, or how it will come and whether we will make it out alive. A grand theory allows us to believe in predictability, and predictability makes us feel safe. But the reality may be that in Europe, we have less to fear from the unknown than from the self-inflicted wounds that we have never taken the time to heal.

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