The racist scapegoating of refugees recalls the darkest moments in Europe's history, writes Lindsey German
The refugee crisis is changing Europe's politics: a fundamental of the EU, the free movement of labour, is under threat as countries erect barriers and fences to stop refugees from reaching the richer northern states. The Schengen agreement, signed up to by most of those states 20 years ago, and covering most of Europe, may, according to the Dutch prime minister, last only a matter of weeks, despite the fact that abandonment of the agreement will do huge damage to trade, the labour market and of course profits.
Greece in particular, already under the cosh from the richer states and under huge pressure from economic crisis and austerity, is now being told that it has to deal with the migrants arriving in their tens of thousands every month, mainly from Turkey. Greece will effectively become one big refugee camp, its northern borders sealed. Already its ministers are being told that it should send the migrants and refugees back - even though this will mean certain death for some of them.
The politics of the crisis are getting uglier. Denmark's seizure of refugees' valuables (apart from wedding rings) is for many redolent of the treatment meted out to Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s. So too is the refusal of European governments to treat refugee children as children, or to allow unaccompanied children to be allowed asylum, away from the terrible camps and the threats which face them there.
Far right parties and movements are calling the shots in many countries, urging ever more draconian restrictions, deportations and abuses of civil and human rights. Their political offensive relies on the whipping up of Islamophobia, again a process which is seeing daily attacks on Muslims just for being Muslims.
'Respectable' politicians are all too willing to jump on the bandwagon. Prime minister David Cameron resorts to daily dog whistle politics which targets Muslims, whether in his demand that 'traditionally submissive' Muslim women learn English or face the threat of possible deportation, or in his description of mainly Muslim refugees as 'a bunch of migrants'.
Muslims are now routinely described a terrorists and extremists, while the same epithet is rarely applied to Fascists and right-wing ideologues. Since the attacks on women in Cologne at new year, Muslim men are portrayed as sexual predators, assaulting western women while keeping Muslim women in the home.
This is not a new development: racism has often created sexual fear about non-white men in order to foster divisions between different races and nationalities.
This deluge of racism is opposed by many millions of people across Europe. People queued to visit a Bristol mosque when it was attacked by racists. The delegations to refugee camps in France and Greece show the strength of feeling among many people in support of helping refugees.
We are up against powerful forces: a relentlessly right-wing media, which daily repeats much of the racist agenda; a government that is content to stoke up racism for its own political gains; and a discourse against migrants of any sort which is longstanding. But we also have powerful forces on our side: high levels of anti-racism; a trade union movement whose record is by and large good on these questions; and a growing movement against austerity.
If the refugee crisis is bigger than any time since the Second World war, the number of wars taking place is also greater than at any time since then. Wars are the product of an imperialist system where the drive for profit is backed up by military intervention. The victims of these wars, often in some of the poorest countries, see their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and are forced to flee. Many of the refugees in Europe now are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya: countries which the imperialist powers have bombed and invaded, at the cost of estimated trillions of dollars.
The wars create refugees, but spending only a tiny fraction of the costs of war on helping those refugees is denounced by the press and politicians.
We should get it in proportion: the population of the 28 EU countries is 503 million. Even 5 million refugees would only represent 1% of that. Europe is the richest part of the world, and could easily help to deal with the problem. Instead, the ruling classes are happy to encourage racism and xenophobia, because it helps to divert attention and anger from the growing inequality in society, and from who is really to blame for shortages of schools, housing and healthcare.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Rebellion in the air – weekly briefing
- Waspi women: stung by the state – weekly briefing
- A parliamentary crisis with no parliamentary solution - weekly briefing
- Stalingrad - book review
- Playing by the rules only works if both sides agree - weekly briefing
- Bolton’s gone but an oil war could be about to start - weekly briefing
- Bolton's out, but we can't trust Trump or Johnson