European leaders wage war on war refugees

September 23, 2015

Nicole Colson reports on developments in Europe's refugee crisis--and argues that the left must provide an alternative to the right's scapegoating and repression.

THE WEEKS since the refugee crisis in Europe got the world's attention have been dominated by heart-wrenching images of desperate people putting their lives at risk--and sometimes losing them--on the chance of escaping to relative safety.

But in recent days, the images from Europe have taken an even uglier turn. One government after another has turned to violence and repression to send the message: Stay out.

The crackdown has been particularly brutal in Hungary. Following the implementation on September 15 of a hastily passed law that criminalizes people who cross the border without authorization--with a penalty of up to three years in prison--Hungarian police escalated their attacks on refugees.

Video from the border on September 15 and 16 showed Hungarian riot police using tear gas and water cannons indiscriminately against desperate refugees--including families with small children--clamoring to be allowed into the country from neighboring Serbia. The government has also begun building a 25-mile razor-wire fence on the border with Croatia--a new route for thousands of refugees who are being trapped in various countries they travel through.

Refugee children are detained in Lesbos, Greece
Refugee children are detained in Lesbos, Greece (Thomas Andre Syvertsen | IFRC)

Former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said he believed "without a doubt" that the attack on September 16 was ordered by the current Prime Minister Victor Orban. Gyurcsany said he had also seen video showing Hungarian police opening a gate at one border crossing, and then deliberately and cruelly attacking the refugees who walked through, using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hungarian police have also beaten journalists, broken their equipment and forced some to delete footage in an effort to keep images of such brutality out of the media.

On September 21, Orban's right-wing Fidesz party blocked with the far-right nationalist Jobbik party to pass a new law that allows the military to use even greater force against border-crossers, including "rubber bullets, pyrotechnical devices, tear gas grenades and net guns," according to a statement on the Hungarian parliament's website.

Using the familiar rhetoric of the far right, Orban declared, "The migrants are not just banging on our door: they're breaking it down. It is our historical and moral obligation to defend Europe. Europe is rich but weak."

Responding to this savagery, Serbia's Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin told the Daily Telegraph:

It's hard to believe that in 21st century Europe, you can see barbed wire, you can see fences, you can see babies and children being treated without any kind of human dignity. These people don't want stay in Serbia. They want to travel to Europe or wherever they want. We are not a concentration camp and we do not expect anyone to consider us as a concentration camp.

WHILE THE crackdown is the most dramatic and severe in Hungary, governments across Europe, from wealthy nations like Germany to smaller and poorer countries in the Balkans, have tightened their borders and signaled that they won't take in the exodus of people seeking entry.

But as each country tightens its borders, desperate refugees continue to seek alternate routes into countries like Germany.

In Croatia, for example, police say some 27,000 migrants hoping to reach Western Europe have entered the country in the past few days, following Hungary's crackdown on its border with Serbia. On September 18, officials in Zagreb said the capital city had been overwhelmed and could not take any more refugees. Hundreds of people who had braved police and tear gas to get to Croatia were sent back to Serbia and Hungary in buses, leading to further tensions at the borders.

For the thousands of war refugees now seeking a path through Croatia, there is an awful, ironic new threat to their safety--an estimated 50,000 active landmines left behind as a legacy of the 1990s wars in the Balkans. Experts say these could be triggered as refugees cross through fields, seeking to avoid official border crossing points.

So far, an estimated 500,000 refugees and migrants have entered the EU this year--156,000 in August alone. That's nearly twice the total for all of 2014. Germany is expected to take in an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people by the end of this year.

The vast majority of the refugees are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan--countries decimated by decades of war and civil war caused by Western imperial policies, as well as the violence of dictatorial regimes like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and the reactionary forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Yet now, as even more people make the dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean and beg to be let in, European governments claim they don't have the resources to help the refugees. Tens of thousands of desperate and destitute people have been trapped in various countries, both inside and on the outskirts of Fortress Europe, particularly Greece and Italy.

For example, some 2,000 refugees are arriving daily on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. The beaches are littered with life vests and rubber boats used to ferry refugees across the few miles of Mediterranean from Turkey. Not infrequently, the bodies of those who didn't survive the water crossing wash ashore.

And as Britain's Independent reported, arriving in Greece is only the beginning of a new round of suffering:

People arriving on boat are classed as "undocumented illegals" by local authorities, meaning they are given no food or shelter and cannot even lawfully get a local hotel room or food from a restaurant until they are registered. To do that, they must journey to the capital of Mytilini on foot for 40 miles. At the Moria First Reception Camp, stained mattresses and sheets of cardboard serve as beds and the gutters run with raw sewage.

A network of volunteers has formed to provide food, water and medical care to refugees, but their efforts are hamstrung by a lack of resources and aid--not only from the Greek government, but the rest of the EU and non-governmental organizations generally.

Plus, promised aid from the international community has been slow to come for crisis-torn areas of the Middle East, where the refugee disaster is originating. One main driver of the crisis is the deterioration of conditions for millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey--but the New York Times reports that this is largely a result of "sharp falls in international funding from United Nations countries." In all, international donors have promised $7.9 billion to help Syrian refugees, but have so far provided just $2.8 billion.

THERE IS a particularly cynical game of politics being played with refugee lives across Europe.

With public support for refugees spreading--including calls for governments to accept greater numbers of refugees, an outpouring of material support donated to refugee centers and recent large demonstrations in support of refugee rights across Europe--political leaders on both the center-right and center-left have tried to do the token minimum to satisfy public demands.

But at the same time, they have increased border restrictions and implemented laws and policies to dissuade refugees from entering their countries. That includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose previous calls to respect refugee rights--however shallow they appeared coming after days of silence when far-right thugs targeted refugee centers--are in stark contrast to the German government's more recent moves to limit refugees allowed into the country.

According to the New York Times, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has proposed a new plan for the EU to accept a fixed number of refugees, but "any further" asylum-seekers would be sent "elsewhere." But where can they go?

Even more troubling is the far right's response across Europe: a vicious tide of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia, and an attempt to pit the interests of native-born against refugees.

As the New York Times reported: "Parties that have been growing in opposition to immigration, the influence of Islam and the European Union seized on the decision by Austria and Germany to welcome the migrants, pointing out the difficulty of now shutting the migrant tap."

The desperate flow of refugees will not stop anytime soon. It is being driven by civil war and the deliberate targeting of civilian populations--specifically by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Western imperial policies and bombing campaigns that put civilians at even greater risk.

According to the New York Times, some 200,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the course of more than four years of civil war after the regime responded to a pro-democracy uprising inspired by the Arab Spring. Some 19,000 people have been killed in air attacks carried out by Assad's government that deliberately target mosques, schools and shopping markets.

In the face of such violence, the small numbers of refugees that Western governments are now pledging to take in (often on a "conditional" or "temporary" basis) is outrageous. The U.S. government is every bit as much of an offender as any country in Europe. The Obama administration's announcement that the U.S. would increase entry for asylum-seekers to 100,000 by 2017 is less than a drop in the bucket.

But on top of that, it's almost certain that congressional Republicans--who have already expressed opposition to increasing the number of refugees to the U.S. from the Middle East--will block the move. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has vowed to introduce a bill giving Congress the right to review and reject plans to resettle Syrian refugees.

In Europe, there are similar initiatives. According to one report, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wants budget cuts worth $2.26 million in 2016 in order to cover the cost of an influx of refugees. This is a naked attempt to pit working people against each other, and must be exposed for it.

THE HOPE for pushing back against the scapegoating of refugees lies in the kind of solidarity and mass action that has begun to take shape among ordinary Europeans demanding that their governments do more to address the crisis. It also lies amid the actions of the refugees and migrants themselves, who have shown an incredible determination to fight for their rights, even in the face of awful repression. As an article by Gareth Dale in Jacobin put it:

In truth, far from pressing presumptuous demands that the states of Europe furnish them with transport, refugees for the most part made their own way, bought their own tickets, and then, when prevented from traveling, some came to act as fused groups: tackling border patrols, marching along motorways, and so on.

In Hungary, when the authorities eventually provided buses, some groups of refugees reacted in the customary manner of social movements: factions formed and debated what the authorities' intentions were. Should we believe their word--that the buses will take us to Austria? Or is it a deceit--are we about to be schlepped off to internment camps? In the end, they boarded. But this was the wager of desperate realists, not of entitled and cosseted utopians.

The refugees' movement found a welcome and welcoming echo in a collective response in Europe. For a public sphere accustomed to a drip-feed of xenophobia (and even refugee-phobia), the outpouring of solidarity and charity came as an epiphany.

As each repressive measure is proposed and passed, as the right attempts to exploit this human tragedy, those committed to justice and democracy must defend the rights of all immigrants--and stand alongside refugees to demand a safe haven for all.

Further Reading

From the archives