Erin C. McGrath, Karsten Donnay, and Kelsey P. Norman
Governments must support citizen-led efforts to provide a welcoming face to refugees or risk letting xenophobia and racism escalate into more violence.
In 2015, the world has witnessed a crisis of displaced persons larger than anytime since World War II. The refugee crisis that has now left over 60 million people displaced by conflict worldwide has drawn considerable international attention. At the same time, the attacks of Daesh and its ideological followers are threatening our relationships with Muslim refugees and strengthening the political far-right in Europe and the U.S. Some countries have already tightened borders, built walls, heightened screening, and toughened criteria for the reunification of refugee families.
A Global Crisis
While the Syrian crisis is unique by proportions, there are 65 other major displacement crises occurring worldwide. The numbers from Syria are staggering. As of late December 2015, 4,390,439 refugees from Syria had registered with UNHCR.
The surge in refugees arriving in Europe in the second half of 2015 propelled the refugee issue to the forefront of the global debate. Yet Western countries have not been hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. Turkey and much poorer countries in the Middle East and North Africa host approximately four times the number of refugees than the West. From Syria alone, there are 2.1 million in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and 1.9 million in Turkey. Turkey became the country with the most registered refugees in the world in 2015.
The forcibly displaced – those who do not formally qualify as refugees – in these countries do not have rights under the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. They end up trapped with no right to work and no right to move. “Warehousing,” according to experts like Christine Mahoney, leaves the forcibly displaced without a future, vulnerable to drug addiction, sexual exploitation, recruitment by militia, and dependent on aid. Regardless of the dangers on the road ahead, warehousing drives refugees to continue moving, with the promise of a better, safer life somewhere else.
While they no longer face life-threatening conflict, the status of refugees in Turkey does not allow them a real future or give the possibility of integration into society. Many then risk their lives on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. Refugees are also subject to violence or human rights abuses along their journey, both in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Eastern and Southern Europe.
Shifting Public Opinion in Europe
Public opinion on the refugee problem has already begun to shift in Europe. Public support has moved toward right-wing political parties, like the Alternative for Germany (AFD), Poland’s Law and Justice party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Fidesz party, and France’s National Front. Europe’s largest democracy, Germany, has experienced the largest inflow of refugees and worrisome changes in its political climate.
The influential Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein recently warned of a new völkische revolution, a term referring to the nationalistic, anti-Semitic movement in the late 19th and early 20th century that swept across Austria and Germany and brought the Nazis to power. Today’s right wing parties may refrain from anti-Semitic statements, but as Augstein notes, ethnic categories are becoming salient again, and one in two Germans now fears the impact of immigration.
Augstein’s stern warning rings terrifyingly true: in the end we may find that fascism is not a problem of the past. Already, the composition of political party support in Germany is changing. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union initially saw a significant loss of public support because of refugee-friendly policies. CDU has now only recovered slightly in opinion polls. Even within her own party, Chancellor Merkel is facing increased resistance to her policies along with new, significant challenges from the right. One weekly poll of German citizens showed the AFD, a far-right party that is only two years old, reaching 10% popularity in the last 3 months.
A rising tide of politically motivated crime against refugees is sweeping across the region. This is the most visible and troublesome shift in Europe’s political climate. In Germany, multiple attempts of arson in refugee shelters, crowd violence and mass protests have accompanied the immigration surge. Arson attacks have increased ten-fold in the past year. Right wing grassroots movements hardly more than a year old, for example the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), are radicalizing with calls for more restrictive immigration rules—and they are targeting Muslims.
A Beacon of Hope: Civil Society
The main effort to deal with the refugee crisis has and continues to be shouldered by the scores of volunteers who help refugees to register and settle in, provide medical assistance, and offer other aid. Community-level, citizen-driven initiatives by and for refugees often fulfill the duties of states that lack local capacity. An abundance of creative, innovative policy solutions for employment and integration have also emerged. In Germany these include apps like Waslchiraa, a service that links donations to refugees, the Workeer job portal designed for refugees, and other online services that provide refugees access to higher education without formal documentation. German universities are even trying to find new ways to admit refugees as students without bureaucratic hurdles.
Western societies are in danger of polarizing, with humanitarian initiatives to accommodate refugees on the community-level on one side, and a rise of ethnocentric nationalism on the other. Citizen initiatives create pathways to improving refugees’ lives, and this is part of the answer. But for these efforts to be sustainable, governments must support these actions and in doing so, they must address the concerns of their citizens. Excluded and marginalized in the decision process, they could otherwise turn to those who offer simple answers like exclusion. Incidents such as those in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve only further escalate existing tensions, especially if we are judging all refugees by the despicable actions of a few.
In 2016 we face a crisis of historic dimensions in which we will be presented with a choice. Chancellor Merkel of Germany equated it with defining moments of recent world history, like the fall of the Berlin wall. This remarkable comparison is as daring as it is fitting: how we face this challenge will shape all of our futures in the years to come. We are at a critical juncture in which public opinion in the West could swing either way with fundamentally different outcomes in the years to come: isolationism or pluralism. Accepting refugees will change host nations and new identities will have to be forged. But change as such is not the problem as long as we all - refugees, citizens and the state - are able to shape that change together.
It remains our responsibility as individual citizens to actively decide for humanity and against fear. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the time is always ripe to do right.
This article expresses the authors' views only and not the institutions they are affiliated with.
Erin C. McGrath
Erin McGrath is NSF Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Social Science at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland College Park. Her research combines complexity theory, social scientific research design, and computational methods. Currently, she focuses on subnational grievances and conflict, and semi-authoritarian resilience, with a particular focus on Turkey.
Karsten Donnay is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. His research studies civil conflict dynamics with a particular emphasis on their relationship with domestic and regional contexts.
Kelsey P. Norman
Kelsey P. Norman is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine where she researches migration to Middle Eastern and North African host states. She has spent the last three years conducting interviews with migrants, refugees, NGOs and policy-makers in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.
I write about contemporary events and my hope that persistence wins over intractability.