Apart from a few European member states – notably Italy and Austria where populists have proven unreliable coalition partners and Orban’s authoritarian Hungary, the issue of refugees and migration is no longer the single hot topic defining the political debate. Recent elections for the European Parliament confirmed this trend. It marked a substantial growth for the progressive green left and a marginal 2% increase of the populist far-right. This, however, which will be eradicated in case of a Brexit. However, anyone who has followed the political debate and media over the past five years would have reasons to believe that a refugee and migrant crisis in Europe from 2015 forced the continent into a state of emergency. There is little objective or rational basis to support such an idea. 

There is indeed a deep and escalating global displacement crisis.

As a few statistics illustrate, Europe has taken a very modest responsibility for hosting its victims. 70.8 million people are displaced by war and persecution across the globe. 41.3 million of those are displaced in their own country – countries like Colombia, Syria, DR Congo, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen ravaged by war and violence. 25.9 million people have fled across an international border and 85% of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate are hosted in developing regions in some of the world’s poorest countries. This compares to a mere 3.5 million asylum seekers with pending cases. Out of those, however, Europe is not the only host – US alone has 719,000. There is also significant migration across the globe, estimated at 258 million people.

But the top 25 countries of destination (measured by the migrant percentage of population) has just two European countries, Luxembourg and Switzerland – both countries defined by intra-European immigration. In other words, the Europe that willingly contributed by supplying troops, weapons, legitimacy or other support to many of the conflicts destabilising Central Asia, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, denied responsibility for the civilian victims. Disregarding the fundamental right to seek asylum. Europe has taken advantage of the natural resources of poor countries across Africa. This has prevented them from entering the domestic market. People pay the highest price for those strategies. Even though most European countries are demographically challenged and are in need of new citizens.

In fact, a self-inflicted political crisis played out. One with far-reaching consequences over a modest increase of arrivals of people fleeing conflict or poverty. One of the richest and most stable regions of the globe could have handled this scenario However, it was not. 

Instead, European politicians at EU and member state level, assisted by media, allowed the populist far-right to move from the fringes of the political debate to the centre of attention.

This loud minority set the tone and captured the agenda. Their crisis framing and dehumanisation of people coming to Europe was adopted in the political consensus and by mainstream media. This occurred either consciously or by default, often picking sensational angles, simplistic analysis and dehumanizing men, women and children. They depicted them as flows, waves or masses of illegals or irregulars despite the fact that their only ‘crime’ was to be unable to cross our borders without risking their lives. People were dying by the thousands on the only routes available – the extreme became the norm. 

This imaginary crisis lead the suspension of basic human rights, humanitarian principles and human decency. Leading to legitimising any and all repressive measures.

Central to this legitimisation was the notion of radical and increasing anti-migration and refugee views of European populations demanding action from their politicians. In fact, as public opinion studies reveal not only are such attitudes a minority phenomenon but attitudes have become slightly more positive over the last 15 years. However, there is largely consensus that the EU and its member states have handled the situation poorly. Leading to a feeling of the of a crisis unravelling. This, in turn, generated fear and increased the salience of the topic. Thereby allowing the far-right to capitalise on populist slogans, simplistic ‘solutions’ and mobilise support in some segments and member states.  

The radical cries of the far-right were translated into policies served in technical lingo. There were three main responses from the EU and its member states. Firstly, keep them out – seal off access through deals with regimes with doubtful human rights records like the Turkey agreement. To support the Libyan government and ‘coastguard’ despite the extreme abuses in the conflict-ridden country. To push backs at Ceuta and Melilla. They closed borders in Central Europe and the Balkans and imposed rigid border control measures across Africa. Secondly, push them aside: by offering the comparatively worst conditions in terms of rights, opportunities and support with arbitrary detention and forced destitution among the most extreme examples. Lastly, send them back: forced deportation including to warzones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somali. Based on rejections in European asylum systems where recognition rates differ radically and an application is pure luck.

Where the politicians failed, millions of Europeans and civil society mobilised.

Young people across Europe volunteered in Calais or the Greek islands. There were also civilian search and rescue operations to save lives and compensate for the inaction from the EU and its member states. Countless groups of activists organised to assist and support. Instead of praising this engagement, the response from politicians was a trend of criminalising assistance by individuals and organisations. Hundreds of Europeans have been charged with anything from terrorism to human trafficking when attempting to save lives at sea, stop deportation flights, provide housing, and support people. Civil society organisations have faced harassment, threats or legal challenges for trying to fulfil their humanitarian mandates.   

It is hard to measure the impact of these five years of collective madness. There will however be, without a doubt, a long-term effect. Leading to severe consequences many boundaries have been crossed. They have used vulnerable groups as scapegoating by alienating them. They have lessened the public debate, thereby politically hurting the European internal coherence and global position, legally through the erosion of fundamental rights and the institutions ensuring them. However, if the salience of the migration issue is decreasing and the self-inflicted crisis is fading out then it’s time to start focusing on the actual crisis. 

The real crisis!

A toxic self-reinforcing combination of conflict, persecution, inequality, poverty and climate change will force millions more into displacement in the coming decade. Europe could and should be a leading force in addressing this global crisis. The tools and strategies are available and based on a combination of pragmatism and vision they can be implemented. ECRE has four proposals: 1) a fundamental reform of the asylum system in Europe, removing dysfunctionalities and generating collective sharing of responsibility; 2) safe and legal channels to access protection; 3) global approaches to responsibility-sharing and addressing causes of displacement, with Europe doing its fair share; and 4) inclusion of refugees in our societies through respect for their rights. We do not need to redefine the European values  – we simply need to live up to them.  


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Author: Villads Zahle

Villads Zahle is the senior Communication Coordinator for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). He has worked in communication at the national, European and international level, including in conflict zones across the globe.

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