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Anti-Refugee Sentiments Reveal a Withering Europe

As Europe battles economic and refugee “crises,” independent researcher Bart Peeters-Akkermans argues that European leaders have exercised a “damage maximization” strategy, creating hardship and hatred for refugees and their own citizens. Enlarging the “zone of prosperity” is the way forward, he says.

Written by Bart Peeters-Akkermans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Top image: Protesters hold banners as they demonstrate against deportations planned at the port of Mytilini, Lesbos island, Greece, during the first day of the implementation of the deal between E.U. and Turkey. AP/Petros Giannakouris

Amid accelerated migration, Europe is witnessing disturbing scenes that imply strong anti-refugee ideologies. Neo-Nazi skinheads marching in Dover, gangs of black-clad masked men beating up immigrants in Stockholm, arsonists setting fire to refugee shelters in Germany, vigilantes roaming the streets of different European cities, inhumane detention camps in Hungary, people living in abject misery on muddy flats along the French coast and at Idomeni in Greece, forced evictions at Calais and, of course, the latest E.U.–Turkey deal, with mass returns from Greece to Turkey moving ahead – the list is getting longer by the week.

Razor-wire fences are going up in several European states. Politicians are openly making racist statements warning people “not to feed the refugees.” Prime ministers are talking about “swarms of migrants.” Voters in France and elsewhere are flocking to the far right. Conspiratorial rants about the purported Islamization of the Occident have moved from fringe groups to the mainstream media. Governments refuse to provide much-needed support for the registration, let alone integration, of the newcomers. At least 10,000 refugee children are missing in Europe according to Europol. Officials in Germany report that half of the refugees who arrived last summer have disappeared. Hysteria over the migrant influxes is reigning, amplified by mass media that magnifies every minor incident involving a refugee.

All this is happening against a background of counterproductive austerity programs at home, a taxation system that favors corporations and the wealthy. These same European states have also inflicted decades of economic damage on “enemy” countries such as Russia and Iran and contributed to the destruction of others such as Iraq, Syria and Libya through overt and covert policies. Environmental damage, mismanagement of resources and rapid climate change are destroying the livelihoods of more and more people globally and in Europe. Yet the E.U. has not made any meaningful efforts to effectively combat further damage.

Last year, the UNHCR reported that 60 million people worldwide were forced to flee their homes due to a combination of these man-made reasons. At this point of the conversation, where accelerating migration has coincided with social and economic atrophy in Europe, it would indeed be hard to outdo the European leadership in devising policies that ensure the worst possible outcome for its citizens in the long term. The E.U. and its member states have pursued policies over the past 15 years that have not only abused the basic rights of incoming asylum seekers but also the welfare of its citizens. Europe is withering.

It is hard for the rational observer to view recent reactions in Europe as uncontrolled chaos or simply an unfortunate confluence of events. The term that springs to mind is “damage maximization.” In other words, creating hardship, nuisance, chaos and mutual hatred to the maximum extent seems to be the default European policy on virtually every issue, from domestic fiscal policy and sovereign debt to foreign policy and now the so-called refugee “crisis.” The short-sighted approaches that led to a weakened union of European states are being applied to refugees with equal vigor. The modus operandi has been led by the illusion of impenetrable borders, which in reality are technically impossible and morally untenable.

In the meantime, European efforts to maintain the fiction of benevolent foreign policies while contributing to the destruction of entire countries and societies have thrived. The final step has been to deny entry to disoriented war refugees who have fled these very foreign policy horrors on the premise of “impenetrable borders.” So, many of these asylum seekers are roaming the streets unregistered, unaided, unsupported, while media and politicians inflate any incidents of criminality that inevitably accompany such levels of desperation and inequity and such large numbers.

The politicians are succeeding as their statements are swallowed and digested by frightened Europeans clamoring for more security and in the process blindly accepting states of emergency and further state control. It is worth questioning if the apparent disarray in the European Union could be the result of deliberate negligence by European leaders who are trying to convince their public of the need for a united Europe under a “strong leadership.” Are some E.U. institutions and member states manipulating European public opinion toward this need for control and political change?

Such European policies of damage maximization have extended to criminalizing citizens who have taken it upon themselves to alleviate the suffering of refugees in light of their respective governments’ inaction and in some cases inhumane deterrence policies.

In Brussels, over the past week we saw violent far-right hooligans literally being escorted by the police to the place where citizens had been uniting to mourn the dead and express their mutual solidarity. The group vandalized the mourning site without much police reaction. One week later, peaceful attendants, including the president of the Belgian watchdog organization the League for Human Rights, were violently arrested at the same location.

Here, we get to the crux of the matter: The elite is not worried about the rise of the extreme right in Europe. Fascism, whether it manifests itself in the form of parliamentary parties or violent street mobs, apparently presents no threat to the interests of the various oligarchs. In fact, it is the increasing tendency of citizens to unite and organize themselves as grassroots collectives that is causing alarm.

From the solidarity movements in Greece, Spain and Portugal that have risen against the neoliberal onslaught called austerity to the citizen-led initiatives that have been helping refugees from war zones and others fleeing the economic and environmental devastation, social solidarity movements threaten the narrative of the far-right governments in Europe.

The bottom line is that the arriving migrants and refugees naturally want more stable lives in what remains one of the few pockets of relative prosperity and democracy on the planet. As Europeans, if we want our little corner of the world to remain as it is, we must first realize that we cannot contribute to the deterioration of the world around us and then try to fight off people fleeing destroyed lands and toward our safe confines.

On the contrary, Europe’s only realistic long-term policy for survival is to enlarge its zone of prosperity. On the domestic front we must share the prosperity equitably with all those who live here and others who want to live here. Externally, Europe must halt the pointless military, political and economic warfare. We must stop implementing economic policies that recklessly exhaust resources and deny local populations development. European citizens must stop relying on corporate and political elites that have neither citizens’ interests nor those of the wider world at heart. It is time that we as European citizens further explore alternative strategies that are evolving at home, especially in economically devastated E.U. countries that can no longer rely on their governments for their basic welfare.

The self-organization of people in Greece and Spain are good examples. Others include the spontaneous efforts to help refugees, from Calais to Lesbos and from Brussels to the Macedonian border. But, it is also useful to think beyond the region and look at how people have been organizing themselves as part of solidarity structures that are independent from states and corporations in places such as Chiapas, Rojava, the occupied Palestinian territories and many other instances where the state is unable or unwilling to protect and provide for its citizens.

These structures can take different forms, from economic cooperatives to community-oriented political structures and popular self-defense mechanisms, or any combination of these. The aim should be horizontal power-sharing that empowers members through solidarity and not charity. They would be based on cooperation as opposed to domination.

The way to escape the mess we have gotten ourselves into, and perhaps the only fair chance of preserving what is left of our planet, is to stop delegating our sovereignty to the conventional economic and political powers and start filling the glaring gaps by ourselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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