By Mariam Tuma
Since the “beginning” of the European Refugee Crisis, a term problematic in its own right, we have been bombarded with mass media campaigns trying to propagate a particular narrative on the issue. The construction of loaded terminology evoking particular emotions, ideologies, and reactions has characterised the very foundation of reporting on the issue.
In early 2014, a phenomenon that has been taking place for years on end was illuminated by the mass media- asylum from the global south to Europe by route of the Mediterranean. Originally, the waters were dominated by asylum-seekers from conflict ridden countries throughout Africa, namely Libya, South Sudan, the Congo, Eritrea, and Somalia. These people journeyed towards the coast of Libya, hoping to be smuggled by way of dingy to Italy. Much of the time these attempts were unsuccessful leading to the deaths or detainment of thousands of people on end. With the intensification of the war in Syria, these migration patterns shifted. Although migration from Libya to Italy persisted, a new route was forged by traffickers in Turkey mainly directed towards Syrians who did not want to live in the dire conditions refugees in Turkey were faced with. They were sold a dream of Europe that painted a picture of freedom, equality, employment, democracy, and humanitarianism. A dream that suggested they would be safe and welcome. A dream where they could thrive. At the end of the day, this was nothing more than a fallacy constructed by liberals and promoted by traffickers who wanted to capitalise on the suffering of refugee populations.
The most notable beneficiaries of the current crisis are the far right, who have capitalised immensely. Colonial-era stereotypes based in orientalist thought have dominated discourse by several media outlets, politicians, and academic writing within the context of the issue. This saga manifests itself in the typical xenophobic, racist, degrading “Clash of Civilisations” rhetoric, where dialogue is constantly engrained with an “us” vs. “them” mentality, which sees anyone who does not fit the typical face of Europe (white, blonde, coloured eyes etc.) as a threat to the very fabric of society. The fear-monging campaigns have attempted to equate refugees to the racialised “other” by way of portraying them as everything Europe is supposedly not- backwards, barbaric, uncivilised, rogue, anarchic, etc. This rhetoric has been underpinned by the vague illusion of “Western Values”, a term which has not really been explored within the context of this rhetoric in a way that is not contradictory.
This form of exploitation has manifested itself within every level of society; whether it’s media, policy, political rhetoric, schools, universities, or civil society movements. This is arguably the most dangerous form of exploitation due to the immediate racialised physical violence which is legitimised by the existence of these ideologies which seek to distort facts, figures, and cultures. Militias in Bulgaria which have armed themselves in order to go out and “hunt down refugees” are an example of this equation of refugees to subhuman entities which have no place in the championed and romanticised nation of Bulgaria. The immediate result is open hunting season for fascist Bulgarians, as well as a free pass for Bulgarian authorities to beat and attack refugees residing in camps as we saw a few days ago in Harmanli’s refugee camp, as well as routinely on the Bulgarian border. One account documented by the Intercept goes, “Abdul Bashir felt police kicking him and striking him on the back, head, and legs with batons and “something with electricity.” The police took the refugees’ money and cellphones before bringing them back to the border fence, where they beat and chased them some more. One of the border guards told the asylum seekers: “Don’t come again.””. It is important to note that this trend is not restricted to Eastern Europe, one only has to look at the number of violent attacks on refugee centres and camps in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and France to recognise this. The construction of the “other” might not directly encourage objective violence against refugees, however it can be cited as legitimization, rooted in dehumanisation by various violent fascist actors.
When we think of the exploitation of refugees, we usually restrict this to efforts made by the far-right to dehumanise refugees. While this is an issue, it’s equally problematic to ignore the way refugees have been exploited by ideologues throughout the political spectrum. This is highly inclusive of the liberal block which seeks to romanticise, and even go as far as fetishise refugees. In this narrative, refugees are exploited as an inferior, homogenised group in need of Western assistance. Liberals accept the notion that those from the global south are indeed lesser than Westerners, accepting the same foundational belief as the far right which suggests that certain “values” underpin the very fabric of Western society; however, it is also implied that these lesser people can aspire to become like Westerners. They can learn our ways, and change to fit our perception of what it is to be a “valuable person”. This revokes any agency from refugee populations, and inspires the racist distinction between good and bad refugees. In attempting to appeal to Western society, liberals end up solidifying the belief that there is a clash of civilisations, however they attempt to make this rhetoric “progressive” by propagating the existence of a superiority structure putting Western society at the top and Eastern society at the bottom. This block is renowned for its Facebook profile pictures of the white saviour surrounded by a crowd of PoC children, who are not named, not humanised, and not empowered. This ideology creates a problematic consequence for refugee aid and provision by exacerbating an already sensitive power structure between beneficiaries of aid and providers of aid by introducing a new level to the equation- that of the Western aid provider helping the poor coloured beneficiary. This exploits refugees by incorporating them into the propagation of violently racist structures of oppression. Refugees become objects for show. Many volunteers throughout Europe cultivate this mentality, especially in Greek squats where Westerners travel from Western Europe and America to try and “teach refugees” how to use the most basic of appliances, do the most basic of things, and learn the “right way of doing things”. No effort is made to learn from refugees, or engage with them on a level that is not condescending or patronising. It’s a self-fulfillment project fuelling itself on the suffering of refugees.
This capitalisation on the suffering of refugee populations does not end with liberals. It goes on to penetrate the Western leftist movement, as well. For the majority the European left opposing the rule of current governments, the refugee crisis was a godsend. This crisis was immediately co-opted by Western leftists, especially the anarchist movement, in order to further their goals. This was basically their chance to say a big “fuck you” to the EU, and their own governments. As we can see in Greece within the squats, politicised entities hosting refugees refuse to engage with certain aid groups due to the groups’ inconsistency with their own ideology. This disregards the need for aid within squats, and fails to incorporate refugee voices within the decision of what aid to accept and what aid not to accept. As a leftist, I do agree with the need to politicise the issue due to its inherently political nature, liberal notions of humanitarianism do not cut it, but Western leftists need to stop pretending they don’t come with their own internalised oppressive complexes. I’ve sat with Western leftists working with refugees and heard the way they’ve spoken about them- the ways in which they look down on them. It becomes a matter of aid provision based on the furthering of the significantly weakened leftist movement, rather than a true show of solidarity which sees refugees as a equal human beings with their situation being a direct consequence of a failing system. A system which does not only discriminate against them because of their class, but also because of their race and their political status. Refugees are continuously treated as political capital by leftists who present themselves as self-righteous agents of change. However, in attempting to supposedly dismantle structures oppressive towards the lower classes, leftists have begun to perpetuate their own structures of oppression against non-white, non-western refugees. Your value as a human being becomes measured by your ability to subscribe to Western leftism. Screaming “open the borders” or “fuck the government” is not enough. Real solidarity movements by Europeans must seek to not only dismantle borders, but also all structures which uphold a system of privilege that discriminates against non-whites as a whole, including the structures Western leftists have created themselves. What is deemed the Journey of Death does not end when a refugee reaches a European country. Or when a refugee finally gets granted asylum or housing. It goes on.
When a refugee arrives in Europe they are exploited by all parties. Structures of oppression, hierarchal power relations, racism, and xenophobia all act as agents of discrimination within the context of the current order. It does not have to be explicit to be an issue. This is not just an ideological issue, it is also structural- we need to stop acting as if the system structurally does not discriminate against non-White foreigners, let alone refugees. As if he/she will have half the life they had in their homeland before wars/exploitation/occupation/genocide. As if he/she won’t end up living on the streets, or in a small crappy apartment. As if he/she will not likely end up working a minimum wage job because of discrimination. As if they will not face racism, ostracism, and hostility on a daily basis. As if their lives are not made a million times harder because of the label assigned to them. As if it ends there.