Upper Limit

The Refugee Crisis and Islamophobia in Europe

by Jane Argodale

Illustration by Nik Bentel

published September 25, 2015

On September 8, a video surfaced of Hungarian journalist Petra Laszlo kicking refugees as they ran past police out of a detainment camp near the Serbian border. They were being held there by a government unwilling to let them continue their journey through Hungary. Laszlo was working for a news channel associated with Jobbik, a far-right party notorious for spreading xenophobia in Hungary. Though the journalist was fired, the event is symbolic of the growing confidence of far-right parties in Europe. Before the current refugee crisis reached its breaking point, these parties had been slowly gaining popularity in response to growing migration within the EU. As thousands of refugees, one in five fleeing the ongoing civil war in Syria, cross European nations’ borders, these parties may see an even greater rise in support because of the perceived threat of Islamification that the refugees pose. 

The same day that the video came out, a post appeared on the Pope’s official Twitter account urging religious communities to take in refugees. The next day, Catholic Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo of Hungary, representative of the most dominant religion in the southern region of the country—through which many refugees enter—called the wave “an invasion.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has become a notorious voice in the crisis, asserting that a wave of Muslim refugees would threaten Hungary’s identity as a Christian nation. 

It is also construed that many of those arriving in Europe are economic migrants, rather than refugees, coming to take advantage of Europe’s economy rather than seeking necessary protection. The distinction between these terms is key, though they are often used interchangeably. Under international law, refugees must be able to prove they are fleeing war or persecution. Under the European Union’s Dublin Convention, refugees can apply for protected status in Europe, and cannot be returned to the dangerous situations they have escaped. Officials across Europe often refer to those who are probably refugees as migrants to justify restricting their movement. 

The vast majority of those coming from Syria, as well as many coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, can be considered refugees. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict and 4 million Syrians have registered with the United Nations as refugees. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are not in Europe, but in camps in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, countries ill-equipped to support refugees outside of giving them a place to live. The situation in many of these camps is grim. One in five people living in Lebanon now are Syrian refugees, but there are no officially sanctioned refugee camps—only informal camps for which many residents must pay rent to landlords. Access to education and healthcare can take months or years to secure for refugees. In Lebanon, attacks against Syrians have been on the rise by both civilians and soldiers. Tents in Syrian refugee camps are torched, and military personnel execute raids and beat residents. With little hope of stability or a prosperous future in the region, many refugees are looking towards Europe.

The appeal of Europe lies in its wealth, and the greater possibility of starting a new life with access to education, permanent housing options, and healthcare. Those who choose to make the journey to Europe often rely on smugglers, many of whom are former drug traffickers who charge thousands of dollars, to sneak them across borders and put them on boats to Greece and Italy. As autumn approaches, conditions at sea are becoming more dangerous. On September 15, the Turkish coastguard detained the survivors of a sinking boat approaching Greek waters, and threatened to deport those who couldn’t pay for flights to Lebanon. Nowar el-Debiar, a recent Syrian arrival in Greece, told The Guardian “the level [of refugees] will be lower because the sea is not good, and maybe the fact that Hungary has closed its borders will put people off. But after five years of war in my country, people cannot bear the situation and so those who used to not think of emigration are now thinking about it. So in October the migration will continue.”

The island of Lesbos, a popular tourist destination in Greece, has become the largest point of entry for refugees, due to its proximity to Turkey. There is now a backup of 20,000 refugees waiting to register with authorities on the island, and Coast Guard officials often work double shifts to rescue those who get stranded near the shore. Upon arrival, refugees often must sleep on sidewalks without access to toilets, and face animosity from locals.

After arriving in Europe, the trip doesn’t get any easier.  After Greece comes the rest of the Balkan region, where many countries have closed or restricted their borders, with new developments in their policies each day—Croatia has closed its borders, and Hungary has put up barbed wire fences along the south and east. However, the destinations of most refugees are further northwest, like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. With train service unreliable and disrupted, refugees have resorted to crossing the continent on foot. Video footage from The Guardian early in September shows men, women, and children walking and sleeping along highways connecting Budapest to Vienna, including some with serious physical injuries.

Further west, where many refugees hope to end up, France and Germany serve as contrasting examples of how two wealthy, Western European powers respond to the crisis. In Germany, a common final destination, refugees are greeted by train cars painted with the words “welcome refugees” in Arabic. Germany has been at the forefront of the crisis, with many of the refugees calling Chancellor Angela Merkel their “compassionate mother.” Yet in Denmark, a highway was closed for a number of days to prevent refugees from crossing into the country from Germany, and the government spent $37,500 publishing ads in Lebanese newspapers meant to discourage refugees from entering.

France has been one of the least popular destinations for refugees, certainly in part due to the government’s unwillingness to accept them. The leader of its far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen warned that “unless the French people take action, the invasion of the migrants will be every bit the same as that of the fourth century, and could have the same consequences,” alluding to Celtic invasions that took place in the Middle Ages, replacing previous populations and causing chaos in the region. Mayors in the country are refusing the Interior Minister’s requests to take in refugees, amid heightening fears of their cities being overrun. In the northern city of Calais, a camp of more than 3,000 refugees hoping to reach the UK called “the Jungle” has formed. French police have repeatedly entered, dismantled makeshift dwellings, and fired tear gas.

Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel had at one point promised there would be “no upper limit,” on intake of refugees, the Munich police have stated that the city has reached the capacity of refugees it can support, and Germany is now increasing border controls. 

With even the countries most willing to take in refugees unable to unify support within their own borders, the chances of smoothly executing a broad, effective European agreement to handle the crisis seem slim. With the resources of refugee agencies overwhelmed, Germany has insisted that the refugees be taken in more evenly among European countries. Many countries have been outspoken against such an agreement, particular less wealthy former Communist states such as Slovakia, where every major party has taken a stance against any requirement to accept refugees. On Tuesday, the European Union managed to push through a deal to distribute 120,000 refugees amongst member states. Given that over 350,000 have already entered the European Union this year, this is certainly a political underestimate, a denying of reality in hope that some continental unity can be maintained. Yet Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia all voted against the decision. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico vowed not to accept his country’s quota of 10,000, telling his parliament “as long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”     

This defiance suggests not only the difficulty of actually enforcing the agreement, but also that EU countries may no longer want the freedom of movement and cooperation that is at the heart of the European Union. This response does not bode well for a weakening European Union, struggling with debt crises and nationalist challenges­—but the human rights implications are perhaps the most disturbing. 

Gruesome images continue to appear in the media, like that of an abandoned truck in Austria with the dead bodies of 71 refugees. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann’s response to the incident emphasized the need for “combating criminals and people traffickers.” The conditions of civil war and instability that would drive a refugee to trust smugglers went unmentioned. As fear and uncertainty build in Europe, it becomes easier for far-right parties to gain power. The philosophy that these far-right groups preach often comes with terrifying consequences for the people they fear are ruining their countries. Militias led by Jobbik have terrorized villages with high Romani populations and led rallies outside of homes, all justified as necessary measures to improve safety.  In France, the right wing group Génération Identitaire began conducting “scum patrols” on the Lille subway last year, also justified as a safety precaution, to harass passengers they perceived as not French. The much larger National Front was founded by former supporters of Nazi collaborationist Vichy France, and currently holds two seats in the National Assembly. Former party leader and father of the current leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen was expelled from the party this summer after calling the Holocaust a “detail” of World War II. The National Front largely campaigns on a distrust of immigrants, particularly Muslim ones, who make up a large portion of France’s population. 

In light of the dire situation refugees are facing, it’s becoming clear that Europe is grappling with entrenched xenophobia even in circles less extreme than Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s National Front. For example, over the years, France has grappled with controversy over the right of Muslim women to wear traditional head coverings. The controversy centers around “laïcité,” a strict interpretation of the separation between church and state, that essentially aims to keep conspicuous expressions of religion out of public places, such as government-run schools. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy put it succinctly in a 2010 cabinet meeting: “citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face.” For many Muslims, removing the veil is out of the question, making them, in the eyes of Sarkozy and many other French citizens, unable to truly experience citizenship.

So opposition to Muslim immigration isn’t simply a value of the far-right, but also a value that fits in comfortably with the values of French citizens across the political spectrum. The France-based feminist organization FEMEN has become known for its topless protests in front of Islamic centers, conflating many Muslim women’s practice of covering most of their bodies with female oppression. The implication is that a visible Islamic presence in France exists in opposition to feminism, secularism, and freedom. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom has warned of the “Islamisation of the Netherlands,” also making an appeal to secular, liberal values. Though Wilders also advocates a ban on immigration from all Muslim countries, and has compared the Quran to Mein Kampf, the basis of his position is also one that appeals to many liberal Europeans.

In spite of such strong oppositional voices, many Europeans have welcomed refugees. In news footage of the refugees walking through Budapest on the way to the Austrian border, ordinary people can be seen handing out food, water, and clothing to refugees. Hans Breuer, a shepherd in Austria, has used his knowledge of back roads and local farmland to take refugees across the border from Hungary. Breuer, the son of a Jewish dissident who had to flee the Nazi regime for Britain, has uploaded footage on YouTube of himself and his passengers singing Yiddish folk songs on the trip across the border. Speaking to The Guardian, Breuer compared the current crisis to his parents’ stories of the Nazi regime: “friends of my mother escaped the Nazis by pretending to be members of the SS. Hearing this story all my life is what has prepared me for this situation.” The sense of responsibility to the people walking down highways and packing into trains in search of a safe home is crucial to any effort to solve this crisis. Perhaps this is why Germany, more aware than any other European country of the consequences of turning a blind eye to human suffering, has taken the lead.

It’s important for any country taking in refugees to consider how they would support this new population. But in Europe the discussion turns far too often into whether it’s even desirable to help refugees who fled war and risked their lives to reach what is meant to be a safe, democratic haven. Dealing with the refugee crisis won’t just be a question of resources, but a question of whether Europeans believe their institutions are strong enough to hold up in a multicultural, pluralist society. 


JANE ARGODALE B’18 is Swiss.