Fleur Houston: How welcome now are refugees in Europe?

Fleur Houston speaking at Churches Refugee Network conference in CoventryFleur Houston addressed the Churches’ Refugee Network conference in Coventry on Tuesday. The author of You Shall Love the Stranger as Yourself: Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World took delegates on a tour of European migration policy over the last 12-18 months.

You can listen back to Fleur’s talk as well as read the fuller version of her comments below.

She reminded us of the contrast between the welcome that the relatively small number of resettled refugees receive and the harsh treatment experienced by those who spontaneously arrive and often treated as having engaged in criminal activity even though they have – as the Refugee Convention acknowledges – been obliged to “use illicit means of entry to a safe country”.

Fleur finished by talking about fear: the fear felt by some European citizens “faced with uncertainty and disempowerment, the erosion of public welfare, and the scale and pace of cultural change”; the the fear of those seeking asylum as they encounter violence at the borders of Europe, and worry about their children. She concludes that what is needed is – to quote human rights barrister Cian Murphy – “not just the furious energy of activism but the ferocious power of political love”.

“A ferocious power which is based on the repeated public affirmation of the dignity of all human beings, of the calling to treat all people with fairness and humanity, even if it is at cost to oneself, a power that is learned and shaped in social interaction, a determined commitment to political love.”

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How welcome now are refugees in Europe?

Fleur Houston, Coventry, 22 November 2016

Now is a small word, so small that it often passes unnoticed, almost an apology for a word. Yet here it has particular weight. For now, today, Germany, Hungary, Austria, France are facing significant political elections. And the key issue for all four is the extent to which they are prepared to welcome refugees.

Two days ago, Angela Merkel announced that she was going to stand again as Chancellor of Germany. There was a widespread sense of relief. After three terms in office she still has high popularity ratings both within her own party and in Germany as a whole. She is widely respected as being one of the few political leaders in Europe to defend universal moral values which she has summarized herself as: “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour and creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views”. In 2015, with Europe in disarray, she emerged as guardian of the principle of international asylum.

Mrs Merkel has made it clear that she and her government were hit out of the blue by the mass movements of people that were triggered by the conflicts of the Middle East. But she has never distanced herself from the decision to open Germany’s borders to avert a humanitarian crisis in Hungary and has always rejected calls for an upper limit to asylum seekers. She has also rejected a banning of people on the basis of their religious beliefs, claiming that this was incompatible with Germany’s constitution and her own party’s ethical foundations. Following a series of violent attacks on Germany she affirmed that “a rejection of the humanitarian stance we took could have led to even worse consequences”. Assailants, she continued “ wanted to undermine our sense of community, our open-ness and our willingness to help people in need. We firmly reject this”. Fear, she suggested, “cannot be a substitute for political action”. Yet with the resurgence of the Far Right party, Alternative für Deutschland, which plays on fears about immigration, she is nonetheless facing the toughest electoral campaign of her career. By and large, at present German citizens are displaying a can-do attitude. There is, it’s true, a certain amount of local unease in villages about the scale and speed of change. But by and large, they are proud of the example they are setting other countries in Europe by making refugees feel welcome.

There is greater ambivalence in Germany’s neighbours. Take Hungary. Viktor Orban’s hard-line rhetoric about refugees led last September to calls for Hungary to be expelled from the EU; he built a fence to drive refugees back to Serbia – people were chased by dogs and beaten. He is now calling for a second border fence allegedly to protect Hungary from refugees. He vigorously opposed the EU project to relocate a relatively small number of refugees in Hungary. And on 2 October he held a referendum, urging citizens to reject the plan. It was a deliberate attempt to give political legitimacy to his desire to exclude refugees. And he hoped that there would be a series of copycat plebiscites in other countries of Europe. In the Czech Republic, for instance where president Zeman’s intemperate and offensive language about Muslim incomers marks him out as a likely ally, or in Poland, or Slovakia, whose leaders take their cue from Mr Orban. But Viktor Orban failed. Spectacularly, the turnout fell short of the threshold, and the vote was invalid. A majority of Hungarian citizens had refused to support their prime minister’s attitude to refugees. And so, while the impasse regarding EU common asylum policy is likely to continue, Viktor Orban’s ideological momentum at European level has stopped.

Austria stands somewhere in between Germany and Hungary. The two main candidates in the presidential election to be held on 4 December are running neck and neck and the battle is being fought largely over refugee policy. Mr Van der Bellen has stressed Austria’s obligations to integrate the newly arrived refugees and is in favour of keeping Austria’s borders open; Mr Hofer, on the other hand, is stoking fears about immigration and hatred of Muslims. The electorate is highly polarised. The result will be crucial for European integration. Can, will the people in just over a week’s time, declare that they wish Austria to welcome refugees?

France too is in the early stages of a presidential election. And here the right wing National Front has assumed a new aura of political correctness under the disciplined leadership of Marine Le Pen. It presents itself as the only true defender of Western liberties and identifies Muslim immigrants as the primary threat to the secular values of the Republic. It reshapes national identity so as to exclude from nationhood those who have legitimate claims. And its message is beginning to resonate wildly with a fearful population, suffering from terrorist attacks.

It is clear from these electoral campaigns that the values that underpin civil society in Europe are under significant threat. The voice of Europe which in the aftermath of the second world war spoke out so strongly for human rights and refugee protection, is now in danger of being stifled by a strident rhetoric of Islamophobia and xenophobia; the open borders which were till recently a sign of free association are now blocked by barbed wire and fences, and patrolled by security guards, police with batons, primed not to protect, but to exclude.

The second point I would like to make is that while a small number of refugees are welcomed by western democratic states through programmes of resettlement, spontaneous arrivals are likely to be treated harshly and induced to leave. To arrive by unauthorized means is seen by many people as criminality. Yet as the Refugee Convention acknowledges, refugees may be obliged to “use illicit means of entry to a safe country’. They may never have had documentation or their papers may have been lost or destroyed in the chaotic circumstances of their flight. In consequence, host countries “shall not impose penalties”. Yet to enter the UK without papers or with false documentation supplied by a smuggler is consistently seen by border officials as criminal activity or a threat to national security.

These spontaneous arrivals are perceived to carry a criminal virus to a “civilized” world. Not only do they flout national boundaries, they typically consort with criminal smuggling gangs to do so. But they may have little choice. Many are fleeing for their lives. They may spend their life savings on securing the services of a people smuggler to take them and their families to safety in Europe. This may involve a journey across the desert in a rickety vehicle or across the Mediterranean or Aegean seas in an unsuitable craft. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children die on the way. While Italian coast-guards, Greek fishermen and other philanthropic individuals do what they can, acting on the basic moral instinct that when people need help, you save them, toddlers are still being washed up on the beaches while the nations of Europe argue over who has responsibility for sea rescue.

As the catastrophe continues to unfold, Europe continues to build fences. Some of these are diplomatic. Take the Dublin system. Under this regulation, refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. But this is under severe strain. Those who survive the journeys from North Africa or SE Europe arrive in Italy and Greece who are increasingly unable to support such an influx on their own. The need to move beyond Dublin is obvious, but so far, there is no collective will in Europe to do so. So many refugees are forced to settle in squalid camps, depending for survival on the good will of volunteers and charitable organizations. It was the images of children, not in Greece or in Italy, but in the Jungle camp in Calais that first brought home to many people Britain’s institutional violence and inhumanity.

I would like to make one final point. Political relationships are highly emotional. 2016 has been characterised so far by fear and anger. Faced with uncertainty and disempowerment, the erosion of public welfare, and the scale and pace of cultural change, many inhabitants of European countries are afraid. Asylum has come to be seen by them as a proxy for foreign brutality and alien values impinging on western life. Refugees, especially Muslim refugees, are seen as a threat. Politicians often play into such fears by linking extremist terrorism with EU border policy, and an increasing emphasis on sovereignty and security concerns has meant that humanitarian concerns for refugees have had to take a back seat.

And those who are seeking asylum are also afraid. They are afraid of the violence they encounter at the borders of Europe, they fear for their children, they fear to return. They and their advocates are angry at perceived injustices. Such fear and anger has its uses, it can drive demos, petitions, litigation. It can challenge unfair practices and lead to changes in government policy. But in itself it is not enough. In the end it stokes more fear and anger and eventually consumes the fearful and angry. What is needed at present and I quote the human rights barrister Cian Murphy, is “not just the furious energy of activism but the ferocious power of political love”. A ferocious power which is based on the repeated public affirmation of the dignity of all human beings, of the calling to treat all people with fairness and humanity, even if it is at cost to oneself, a power that is learned and shaped in social interaction, a determined commitment to political love.