by Robyn Banks
The migrant hoard was coming, a swarm of extremist middle Easterners desperate for new teeth who were going to simultaneously take all of the jobs and all of the job seekers allowance and probably wouldn’t even take a can of lager to the job centre like a proper British. They were going to threaten our way of life, make us all Muslim and were probably responsible for the recession. But somewhere along the way something changed and they became refugees — women, children, young men escaping war torn countries — deserving of our help and accommodation.
Talk of exits and bailouts have been plaguing the EU recently, and for a while it seemed as though the ‘migrant crisis’ was going to be the narrative sold to pull us all together, to make a case for the borders of Fortress Europe and to show that the EU was a big union capable of solving big problems. But then the public mood seemed to change. Suddenly people were ferrying van loads of donations to the camps at Calais and networks of volunteers seemed to spring up across the country. Syria was in the news again and ‘Refugees welcome’ marches attracted thousands. The establishment responded, but only with compromise.
A crafty distinction is being reinforced between the economic migrant, who travels for greed, and the refugee.
The number of refugees the British government have agreed to take has been denounced by many as too little, too late and its refusal to accept refugees who have already made it to this country has been accused of being an offensive offside rule for humanitarian aid. Germany opened its borders and then promptly slammed them back shut as thousands rushed in in just days. Merkel argues Germany has taken ‘more than its fair share’ as Slovenian and Hungarian police attack migrants with tear gas and water cannons. A crafty distinction is being reinforced between the economic migrant, who travels for greed, and the refugee. Positive press about people taking displaced people in to their spare rooms appears alongside calls for caution, control and, most of all, austerity.
But, increasingly, the refugees welcome movement is becoming tied up in the Europe wide anti-austerity movement, as people question the economic and moral basis for the idea that we are too poor to share — both among ourselves and with ‘outsiders’. Emotive imagery of the conditions people are fleeing from has made Europeans aware of their own wealth and the double standards dominating politics for the last decade are being called in to question. With so much wealth so evidently still around us, should the most vulnerable in society not be getting a fair share?
The whole European ‘identity’ was built on a lack of borders and a unity of people who would cast aside their differences to work together in the same multicultural society. The fall of the Berlin Wall captures perfectly the spirit of freedom sold to us for years after, and is the very antithesis to the nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic narrative used by the anti-immigration parade. Europe doesn’t have a single identity that can be pitted against the migrants to encourage us that, while Europeans are all equal and should be allowed free movement across our continent, others are not and should not. Same too for the distinction between the migrant and the refugee, as thousands of European nationals traverse the zones of the Schengen agreement in search of better work or wages. To buy in to these ideas would be to buy in to the idea that Europeans are somehow more desirable and, simply, better.
you have a recipe for an informed society refusing to be governed by the narratives sold by establishments clinging to sovereign powers.
Add to this the increasing understanding in the western consciousness that our behaviour abroad has done us no favours and that we have each played our own parts in the tragedies that have torn apart countries like Syria and Afghanistan, and you have a recipe for an informed society refusing to be governed by the narratives sold by establishments clinging to sovereign powers. As Syrians beg for an internationally enforced no fly zone to protect them from Assad’s barrel bombs, while they get on with the important work of fighting ISIS better than we do and rebuilding their country, the best idea Western leaders can come up with is to bomb them a bit more. Just as protestors take to the streets holding signs saying ‘I don’t want Europe to become a mass grave’, the truth about the mass graves abroad many of us have been complicit in bubbles closer to the surface.
Europeans are not just demanding that we tackle this ‘migrant crisis’, but are demanding that we tackle it in ever more humane, fair and yes — expensive — ways. And at its heart this is connected to a broader desire for a fairer distribution of resources which only asks that a handful of the richest and most powerful nations on Earth make more of an effort to protect the needy. When protestors chant slogans like ‘brick by brick, wall by wall, make the fortress Europe fall’ it should make those with an interest in maintaining the EU sit up and listen. And when the Schengen agreement is called in to question and governments resort to controlling tactics imitating the very tyrants we are so fond of overthrowing, it doesn’t make the EU look like the wealthy, democratic utopia we’ve been told it is.
Either we are proud, righteous and strong, or we are poor and weak and troubled — too much so to offer a helping hand to our neighbours. Both European citizens and leaders need to decide, because a failure to tackle this ‘big problem’ without looking like the villains will call the whole purpose of the union in to question and shake confidence in Europe when it is vitally needed. Handling it well could renew again the feelings of unity and democratic utopia that persuaded us this whole thing was a good idea in the first place. Will this be the crisis that breaks Europe, or the crisis that makes it?