The harbour of Crotone, Italy. Demotix/Marcello Fauci. All rights reserved.In the middle of Europe’s Christmas-new year holiday a ship carrying 450 migrants - mostly Syrian refugees - and set to autopilot, was rescued after its passengers issued a distress call warning the Italian coast guard that they were unable to control the boat. It was the second such ‘ghost ship’ in four days and has given rise to concerns regarding a new trend in the regional traffic of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe that has characterised Mediterranean sea politics over the past few years.
The passengers on the Ezadeen were fleeing a conflict that has so far killed over 200,000 and made more than 3 million refugees. This is the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. As Europeans learned of the ghost ship’s tragic cargo, the story was not of disbelief that the whole of Europe has offered to resettle only one percent of Syria’s refugees but of how to safeguard our continent’s borders.
Irregular migration across the Mediterranean has become a contentious issue across the European continent and is being treated increasingly not as a situation of shared humanitarian concern but as ammunition in domestic anti-immigration debates.
Last autumn it was quietly announced that the UK would no longer contribute to European rescue efforts in the Mediterranean that can save the lives of 1000 migrants and refugees from doomed vessels in a single day. The UK government argues that this decision will act as a deterrent to those who attempt the hazardous journey by sea from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
The decision to pull funding for the Mediterranean rescue efforts revealed the considerable impact that the resurgent narratives of anti-immigration and isolationist patriotism in the UK have on the lives (and deaths) of marginalised groups not just here in Britain but around the world.
Those unfortunates seeking passage across the Mediterranean have been effectively dehumanised, their identity reduced simply to ‘immigrant’. In British public discourse, and across Europe, immigrants are increasingly being presented as somehow lesser; the very term ‘immigrant’ now used by some as a race-linked pejorative.
In fact, many of those desperate to risk the perilous sea voyage are fleeing some of the world’s worst identity-based mass violence in Syria, the Central African Republic, and Sudan. Others come from Mali, Somalia, Kashmir and Eritrea. The portrayal of refugees who come in search of shelter and safety as instead parasites who seek ‘something for nothing’ belies Britain’s responsibility for the vulnerable and respect for human dignity.
The myth that Britain is seen by migrants as a ‘soft touch’ because of the welfare system has become a genuine fear among the British public. In Britain, public perceptions of immigration are already hugely inaccurate, with the majority believing the immigrant population in the UK to be double what it is in reality.
The process of scapegoating is used all over the world to frighten and divide. Some politicians and elements of the media have succeeded in presenting immigrants as responsible for recent economic strains. What seems to be the perpetual hyperbole that surrounds the issue in the UK provides a daily dose of misleading information, which is then understandably translated into anger, fear, and frustration.
We know that scapegoating can have a terrible impact on social cohesion and lead to incidents of identity-based violence. In London, hate crime against Muslims has risen by 65 percent over the past 12 months. The political rhetoric is exclusionary and is itself translating into an increase on British streets of exclusionary criminal behaviour.
Across Europe, fears of immigration are featuring heavily in the politics and press of the resurgent right-wing. Last week, 18,000 people joined the mass anti-immigration protest in Dresden. In Germany, Greece, Hungary, France, Italy and elsewhere, exclusionary politics that demonise the vulnerable as undeserving scroungers have long been gaining ground.
For now, liberal civil society in Europe remains strong. The Dresden rally was countered by an even larger turnout of 35,000 against racism. Solidarity for France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings has, for the most part, provided the opportunity for political leaders and communities to demonstrate their commitment to unity, democratic freedoms, and multiculturalism. Sunday’s one million-strong march through Paris will long be remembered as a symbolic moment in Europe’s history.
But the Paris attacks have also revealed the fragility of social cohesion today, not only in France but across the continent. Violent counter-attacks in France, though spontaneous, are the result of the dehumanising narratives that are increasingly legitimising prejudice throughout Europe. In the UK, UKIP leader Nigel Farage blamed multiculturalism for the Charlie Hebdo murders, claiming that “we… have a fifth column within our countries”, which has “very worrying implications for our civilisation.” Mr Farage’s comments purposefully conflate the issues of social cohesion and terrorism, implicitly marrying fears of immigration with fear of extremism. While world leaders marched in Paris, the Daily Star ran the headline: ‘Terror Family on UK Benefits: We fund wife of terror attack mentor’.
Immigration and extremism are key political issues in Europe today, and elements of the right are not only seeking to manipulate real fears but are now presenting the two as part of a single problem. And in a sense they are correct. Both issues are about identity. But while the right reduces immigrants to economic burdens and extremism to a solely Muslim affliction, the appropriate response is to reject all forms of identity-based prejudice.
The murders in Paris and the revenge attacks on mosques are products of the same processes that have left over 2,000 dead in Nigeria, and continue to force Syrian refugees to travel on unsafe boats across the Mediterranean. Nobody should ever die because of their identity. Surely, then, it is our shared global responsibility to stand up and defend the right of all peoples to live without identity-based violence, whether it means providing safe passage, shelter, or rejecting the prejudice we witness in our own daily lives.