Thursday, 20 September 2012

Greece: The Syrian migration invasion

Last Monday, Greek authorities announced that Greece should fortify itself against a massive wave of illegal migrants from Syria.

"A migration wave is starting to show, it has not yet reached Greece in large numbers, currently it is heading to Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, but the country must be ready", warned. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias. He also announced the government's plans to "fortify the Aegean Sea".

Back in August, Dendias had already warned that "The country is about to perish . . We are facing an invasion". This week, Greek Prime Minister Samaras added more to the doom and gloom:

"I wake up every morning and say, 'Has anything happened to Syria today?', If something happens in Syria, thousands of people would be flowing into Greece. Illegal immigrants are already a very big problem for us. We are already taking big steps to disallow illegal immigrants from coming in. Imagine if that number is multiplied by 10," Samara warned.

These statements are classic examples of migration fear mongering which lack any factual basis. The whole idea that Syrian refugees would be massively "underway" to Greece is simply ridiculous.

It seems another variant of the scaremongering by Italian authorities in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya in the Spring of 2011, when they predicted that a migration wave of [sic] "biblical proportions" was about to hit Europe's Mediterranean shores.Italian politicians boldly claimed that the violence in Libya would force up to 1.5 million sub-Saharan migrant workers to take the boat to Europe. In previous blogposts, I argued hat such predictions were not based on any facts, and that it should therefore not come as a surprise that this invasion never happened (for a more comprehensive overview, see also here).

The reasons were simple: Most migrants had gone to Libya to work, not to go to Europe; The vast majority of migrants workers fleeing the violence wanted to go back home; Most Libyan refugees preferred to stay in Tunisia and Egypt to return as soon as the conflict was over. Only a tiny fraction of refugees ended up in Europe. Although the temporary falling away of border patrolling in Tunisia led to a certain increase of 'normal' boat migration to Italy, which had already been going on for decades, these concerned several tens of thousands of people, a relatively modest number compared to the invasion of "biblical proportions" that was envisaged.

Rather, such immigration fear-mongering fulfils the domestic political purpose of creating an external threat. By doing so, politicians create a common cause and rally people behind them, which handily defects the attention away from internal problems and their own policy failings. The "creation" of such external threats (terrorism, migration, Islam, or, ideally, a combination of these) has become particularly important since the demise of the Communist threat in the late 1980s.

Usually, if we look at the facts on the ground, such imagined migration deluges shrink to a trickle. This also holds for Greece. The vast majority of the more than 250,000 Syrians refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and, particularly, Turkey, in the same way as the overwhelming majority of Libyans fled to neighbouring countries last year.

According to this news report, more Syrian migrants are appearing in the Aegean Sea islands. Although several hundreds to a few thousands of Syrian refugees may have crossed into Greece the past few months (see for instance here), and more may follow as long as the conflict continues, these numbers are a tiny fraction of the total refugee population, and there is no reason to assume that the Syrians masses would be heading towards Greece.

The whole assumption that Syrian refugees would massively use Turkey as a staging ground to move on to Greece seems flawed. First, most refugees prefer stay to close to home, either in Arab countries or in relatively safe and stable Turkey. Second, most refugees want to go back as soon as possible. Why would Syrians all of the sudden want to go to crisis-ridden Greece?

Greek officials recently said that nearly 15,000 Syrians will try to enter Greece by the end of September. However, this number seems to come out of the blue and lacks any factual basis. But even this "guesstimate" would be right, it would be ridiculous to compare this to an "invasion". The routine portrayal by Greek authorities of refugees as "illegals" is even more outrageous.

The Greek authorities should be ashamed to use Syrian refugees as scapegoats. It is also a myth that Greece would not be able to host refugees. There are many poorer countries in Africa and Asia which have hosted hundreds of thousand of refugees. Tunisia, for instance, generously received hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Libya last year, while it was facing economic hardship and political instability in the wake of its own revolution.

There are really no excuses. Greece has a dismal record of refugee protection, which goes back way before the crisis. It has an asylum approval rate of 0.05 percent (probably one of the lowest rates in the world) and many asylum seekers and refugees (and other immigrants) live in appalling conditions and they frequently fall victims to violent attacks by anti-immigrant, neo-fascist groups groups (see for instance this video).

While the fabrication of a national emergency around an imaginary Syrian migration invasion may serve short-term political goals, such rhetorics are harmful as they fuel racism and anti-immigrant feeling. Ironically, by reinforcing the insane idea that the Greek nation is in peril because of immigration, the Greek government actually strengthens extreme right-wing parties such as Golden Dawn. This is a dangerous game, of which migrants will be the first victims.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Greece is the new Islam

Leading up to national elections in the Netherlands, which took place on 12 September, I have been closely following the debates between party leaders. The most striking observation I made is the near-total absence of the issues of immigration and Islam in the debates.

This was in stark contrast with the previous elections, when these themes were dominating everything, and in which far-right leader Geert Wilders managed to paralyse most other parties with 'telling the truth' about the alleged mass-immigration, the threat of Islam and the failure of multiculturalism.

In short, mass-immigration, particularly of Muslims, was blamed for almost all ills of Dutch society.  Immigration was threatening the Dutch economy, Dutch jobs, Dutch education, Dutch social security, Dutch public health, and, last but not least, Dutch national identity. In Wilder's world, mass-immigration is part of an international jihad aiming to 'islamize' Dutch and European societies. Stopping mass immigration was therefore seen as the solution to solve most problems facing Dutch society.

Although this scapegoating of migrants and Islam lacked any factual basis, and with the exception of the smaller liberal and Green parties, most big were terrified to openly counter this nonsense. On the contrary, out of fear of losing votes, the entire political field moved to the right and adopted restrictionist positions and many did not refrain from pointing fingers at immigrants.

In April of this year, the political scientist Amber Jane Davis successfully defended her excellent PhD thesis at the European University Institute, The Impact of Anti-immigration Parties on Mainstream Parties' Immigration Positions in the Netherlands, Flanders and the UK 1987-2010 . In her thesis, Davis describes this phenomenon in which the entire political spectrum has moved to the right in response to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant parties since the 1980s. Interestingly, she also observed that, when the far-right threat (temporarily) falls away, an opposite movement occurs, with parties adopting less restrictive positions.

In her study, Davis also shows how such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

After the electoral victory of Wilders' PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Freedom Party) in 2010, the Dutch right-wing 'liberal' VVD party (which basically represents the interests of the well-to-do) and the Christian Democratic CDA party had no qualms to form a minority government which was backed in parliament by the PVV.

However, since then, the Great Recession and the Eurocrisis have entirely changed the political game, as the focus shifted towards economic policies and bread-and-butter issues. Despite his acrobatic ability to blaming immigrants for almost any problem, even Wilders was unable to make a credible link between immigration, or Islam, and immigration.

After Wilder toppled the government in April by refusing to back budget cuts, he radically switched his rhetoric, and started to run an electoral campaign based on a fiercely nationalistic, anti-European agenda, advocating to scrap the Euro, bring back the guilder and leave the EU. Wilders tried to convince voters the only way to reclaim Dutch sovereignty was to leave the EU. 

Instead of immigration, Brussels became the new scapegoat.

And Greece became the new Islam.

Wilders tried to shift the blame of all economic problems to Greece and other southern European countries. "We are paying up for those [sic] garlic countries, whose affairs are in disarray" - he stated in one of the latest debates. Wilders created an image of Dutch tax payers subsidising the sunny lifestyles of lazy, corrupt Greeks, who all retire at the age of 50 to lie on the beach for the rest of their life. Wilders strategy bitterly failed, as he was defeated during the elections.

Europe did not prove to be such a poisonous theme as Islam and immigration.Leaving the Euro and the EU proved one bridge too far for the Dutch. Opinion polls interestingly showed that the election debates have made the Dutch public less Euro-sceptic. This is the good news. The debates made voters more aware of the vital importance of the EU for the Dutch economy. More practically, reintroduction of the guilder and border controls would complicate holiday making for the travel-savy Dutch. That's the good new: the public wants to be informed, and arguments do apparently count.  

It is more sobering that other mainstream politicians, and particularly prime minister Mark Rutte, leader of the right-wing liberal VVD party (who won the election) also shifted the blame of the Eurocrisis to southern Europe, and the Greeks in particular. We see exactly the same Greece-bashing among most German politicians.

Such simplistic accounts of  "it's all their fault" are not only simply wrong (see for instance here and here), as they deny the role of northern European governments and banks in the Eurocrisis. What is more worrying that such fingerpointing goes along with self-righteous attitudes and typical northern European arrogance.

Anti-Greek rhetoric may be attractive to win popular support, they also fuel superiority feelings based on stereotypes of efficient, reliable and responsible northern Europeans versus corrupt, unreliable and sloppy southern Europeans. This in turn, provokes anti-northern feelings in southern Europe, with the Germans symbolising northern European arrogance. In Greece, Germans are being accused of abusing the Eurocrsis to imposing its and to re-occupy Greece, sometimes even comparing it with Nazi practises (for a photo gallery see here).

Both sides are clearly wrong here. But while the anti-German sentiment in southern Europe gets full exposure in the media, northern European political leaders seem little aware or reflective about the damaging effects of their own arrogance, which may serve short-term political goals (of winning elections) but do nothing to solve the crisis, and may in fact endanger such a solution by fuelling intra-European racism.