Europe’s rising tide of refugee scapegoating

February 8, 2016

Nicole Colson reports on the latest deadly developments in Europe's crackdown on migrants--and the frightening attempts of the right to capitalize on the hysteria.

UNDETERRED BY cold weather and the threat of death, thousands of desperate refugees fleeing violence and suffering in the Middle East and Africa continue to head toward Europe--while the response of European Union leaders has been to erect more legal and physical hurdles, and the right wing is spreading, sometimes violently, its anti-immigrant hate.

More than 74,000 refugees and migrants are thought to have entered Europe by sea since the beginning of January. This follows on the more than 1 million who arrived during 2015. According to the International Organization for Migration, the first four days of February saw 7,483 arrivals by sea--more than the entire month of February 2015.

With the seemingly endless flow of refugees comes the inevitable deaths. As of February 5, some 374 refugees already have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea this year. Each new week brings news of more ships capsizing and mass drownings.

The horror last fall that shocked the world and focused attention on the plight of the refugees--Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi's body washed ashore on a Turkish beach--has been repeated hundreds of times.

A right-wing mobilization against the refugees in Slovakia
A right-wing mobilization against the refugees in Slovakia

And once refugees land in Greece or Italy, their ordeal has only passed the first stage. It's a stage that EU leaders have made ever more arduous over the past several months, setting up one grueling barrier after another with the aim of containing the flow of refugees entering Europe and heading west toward the continent's most advanced economies like Germany, France and England.

Last fall, as the crush of refugees grew more intense, EU leaders talked about "respecting the human rights of refugees"--even as they closed their borders, erected barbed-wire border fences and passed laws allowing easier deportation and barring refugees without "proper documentation" from finding shelter, accessing social services or even crossing through their countries.

Along with the legal measures has come the scapegoating of refugees, including rampant Islamophobia designed to demonize them.

The anti-refugee climate has only worsened in recent months, with the right wing attempting to capitalize on fears about migrants by pitting native-born workers against immigrants who are seen as "stealing" social services and jobs.

Though France's far-right National Front fell short of winning power in any of the country's 13 regional governments in December elections, it dominated in the early round of voting and gave NF leader Marine Le Pen a boost ahead of the 2017 presidential election. In Hungary, the far-right ruling government has passed laws allowing security forces to use increasing force against migrants and refugees.

THE TOXIC anti-immigrant displays have played out in supposedly more immigrant-friendly states.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron last month went on the offensive in singling out refugees--especially Muslim women--who fail to learn English. Warning of a "passive tolerance" that would allow different communities to live "parallel" lives within Western nations, Cameron doubled down on the racist claim that refugees refuse to "assimilate" and therefore put Western "values" at risk.

As the Ramadhan Foundation noted, Cameron's criticism is using Muslims as "political football" to score political points. "The irony of the prime minister calling for more resources to help migrants learn English when his government cut the funding for English classes in 2011 has not been lost on many people," the group said.

Meanwhile, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany have begun seizing jewelry, cash and other valuables from some refugees to force them to fund their stays in those countries.

In late January--after reports of sexual assaults committed by "North African" men over New Years in the German city of Cologne ignited a new anti-immigrant hysteria--Bavaria's Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann declared that anything worth more than 750 euros ($835) could be legally seized from asylum-seekers. In the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, where some migrants have been the victims of arson, asylum-seekers are allowed to keep even less: just 350 euros ($390).

"If you apply for asylum here, you must use up your income and wealth before receiving aid," Aydan Özoguz, the German government's integration commissioner, reportedly said. "That includes, for example, family jewelry. Even if some prejudices persist--you don't have it any better as an asylum seeker as someone on unemployment benefit."

Swiss officials have recorded at least 112 instances where assets over 1,000 francs ($1,006) were seized from asylum-seekers last year. In Denmark, a new law allows authorities to search arriving refugees and seize money and valuables over 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,492), as well as delay family reunification.

"The bill presented by the center-right minority government of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was approved by 81 of the 109 lawmakers present, as members of the opposition Social Democrats backed the measures," the Guardian reported of the Danish law--which also raises the waiting period from one year to three before refugees can apply for their families to join them and permits officials to consider an individual's "integration potential" in deciding whether to grant asylum.

Pernille Skipper, a member of parliament and legal affairs spokesperson for the left-wing Enhedslisten party, told the Guardian: "Morally it is a horrible way to treat people fleeing mass crimes, war, rapes. They are fleeing from war, and how do we treat them? We take their jewelry."

Jean Claude Mangomba, who fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explained the stakes in an interview with the Guardian:

The new law is very bad. Really, they just want to send us back. I didn't choose to come here. I came here suddenly, I fled, I was lucky to get out, I was desperate. I have not seen my wife and three children for three years. With the new law, it will take many more years before I can see them again. I am losing hope. The asylum system here kills people slowly.

IF STRIPPING desperate asylum-seekers of their jewelry and valuables sounds to you like it might be policy of Nazi Germany, you're right. But the outrage of some of the world's wealthiest governments seizing the assets of people fleeing persecution goes beyond that. The laws themselves are calculated to send a message to refugees: stay out.

In addition to confiscating valuables and cash from refugees, the German government recently announced that some migrants who are allowed to stay in the country because they may "risk torture or the death penalty in their own country" could be blocked from bringing their families to Germany for at least two years.

In other countries, the message is even more explicit--like Sweden, where Interior Minister Anders Ygeman announced in late January that the country would be expelling as many as 80,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in the country in 2015. Finland also announced similar deportations of some two-thirds of the 32,000 asylum-seekers that arrived in 2015.

According to the International Business Times, the Swedish government will use specially chartered flights for the deportations. It quoted Anders Ygeman saying that "[r]ejected refugees are usually deported using commercial flights. But given the large number of asylum-seekers to be expelled, Sweden would use specially chartered aircraft to take them out of the country."

Ygeman and other Swedish officials blamed the deportation drive on other EU nations not doing their part in accepting refugees.

THE GOVERNMENT crackdowns come amid a frightening escalation of violence by some on the right.

In late January, hundreds of masked men went on a rampage through Stockholm's main train station, attacking refugees and anyone who appeared to not be ethnically Swedish. Cynically exploiting the death of a social worker who was stabbed at a refugee shelter for unaccompanied children, the mob reportedly handed out leaflets with the slogan "It is enough now!" which threatened to give "the North African street children who are roaming around" the "punishment they deserve."

After the attack, the neo-Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement released a statement that claimed the attack had "cleaned up criminal immigrants from North Africa that are housed in the area around the Central Station...Police have clearly shown that they lack the means to stave off their rampage, and we now see no other alternative than to ourselves hand out the punishments they deserve."

Germany--which has been, at least in official government statements, somewhat more tolerant of the refugee influx--was the site of a spate of arsons and attacks by neo-Nazis on refugee centers and homes last year. Late last month, Frauke Petry, head of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, called on police to shoot those attempting to cross the border illegally.

"No policeman wants to fire on a refugee and I don't want that either," Petry told a newspayer, but "police must stop refugees entering German soil." Polls show Alternative for Germany winning 11 percent in national support--the third-strongest in the country.

In France, the magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to reports of sexual assaults in Cologne with a sickening racist cartoon that showed a caricature of a grown-up Aylan Kurdi chasing a woman, with the caption: "What would little Aylan have grown up to be? A groper in Germany."

On February 6, at the main refugee camp in Calais, France, known as "The Jungle," the former head of France's Foreign Legion, Gen. Christian Piquemal, according to the Guardian, "told a crowd of about 150 people, many with shaven heads, that he wanted to 'prevent the decline of my country.'" Chants at the protest--one of several called by Germany's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim PEGIDA group in several cities across Europe--included "Migrants out," and Le Parisien reported that witnesses saw some in the crowd giving the Nazi salute.

EVEN AS EU countries tighten their borders and political leaders scapegoat asylum-seekers, some are only too happy to see refugees and migrants as an easily exploitable source of cheap labor. This includes German capitalists who salivate over the prospect of refugees helping ease a protracted labor shortage in the country.

The same sentiment was echoed in a call by the International Monetary Fund last month, in a report which urged EU countries accepting refugees to "temporarily" pay them less than minimum wage.

"[T]he sooner the refugees gain employment, the more they will help the public finances by paying income tax and social security contributions," the IMF declared. The report went further, insisting, "Low education and poor linguistic skills likely limit the attractiveness of refugees on the job market...Easing restrictions on the geographic mobility of refugees could also allow them to go where labor market prospects are more favorable."

Allowing governments to undercut wage and labor protections for refugees and asylum-seekers will only lead to more exploitation and a weakening of labor laws and wages for all workers. Labor must stand arm in arm with refugees against attacks from the right wing or business.

That kind of solidarity was on display on February 6 in a march against a PEGIDA rally in Dresden, where hundreds of counter-protesters took to the streets under the motto "Solidarity instead of exclusion" and held placards reading "No place for Nazis."

It could be seen as well in late January, as anti-racists from across Greece marched on the Turkish border to demand refugees be allowed in, just two days after 45 refugees--including 20 children--drowned in the Aegean Sea. Some protesters wore life vests to symbolize the dangerous crossing.

And Greek soccer players in the second-tier AEL league put on an inspiring display of solidarity late last month when they delayed a match between the Larissa and Acharnaikos teams. All 22 players, plus the coaches and substitutes, sat on the field as an announcement over the stadium's PA system stated:

The administration of AEL, the coaches and the players will observe two minutes of silence just after the start of the match in memory of the hundreds of children who continue to lose their lives every day in the Aegean due to the brutal indifference of the EU and Turkey.

The players of AEL will protest by sitting down for two minutes in an effort to drive the authorities to mobilize all those who seem to have been desensitized to the heinous crimes that are being perpetrated in the Aegean.

The hope for humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers lies in more protests like these--a show of solidarity with the persecuted and exploited, and against the policies of EU leaders and the scapegoating of the right.

Further Reading

From the archives