There is an ongoing debate about the extent of the European Union’s commitment to human rights, specifically around the issue of refugees and migrants. Their reception across the continent has been welcoming in some countries and hostile in others. There is no single “EU model” for receiving people fleeing from desperate situations in their home countries.
While ordinary people and civil society organisations generally receive refugees warmly and provide a lot of basic assistance, there are also racist attacks and hate crimes. Muslim women have been particular targets.
Cultural assimilation and integration includes language lessons and finding a job. Occasionally, this entails doing or seeing things which the migrants will find culturally inappropriate, such as indecent images on television, for example. It is not an easy or straightforward process.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people are still risking their lives on hazardous journeys to get to Europe. In doing so they are unwittingly making themselves pawns in a political game. Estimates suggest that thousands have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In five countries — Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal — the authorities agreed to accept a specific number of immigrant children stranded in Greece, provided that they were alone and not accompanied by a parent, or in very poor health. This meant exploiting the poor conditions of the families and more or less kidnapping the children.
Exploitation takes place at all stages of the refugees’ journey. Human trafficking extracts a heavy toll, and the nightmare doesn’t always end if and when they reach Europe. Too many still live in degrading, harsh and inhumane conditions, and are forced to work for pay below the legal minimum wage. The evidence suggests that the EU policies and practices are not connected in any way, and that a great deal of hypocrisy is on display.
However, before we get too critical, it is important to remember that the tragedy of the refugees started in their own countries. In Syria, the regime and armed opposition groups must accept their share of the responsibility for the millions of refugees and displaced persons. Corrupt and authoritarian governments across Africa and Asia must also be held responsible for the awful conditions in their countries which force so many people to flee in search of a better life.
Human trafficking gangs and smugglers treat refugees abominably. In Libya, they are held in prison-like facilities in extremely humiliating and cruel conditions. Even in Turkey, which hosts four million Syrian refugees, there are reports of human rights violations against refugees, who are used as a bargaining chip with Europe and sacrificed for political gain.
Relatively poor Arab countries such as Jordan and Lebanon host huge numbers of refugees, while rich countries, especially the Gulf States, don’t host any at all. Where is the compassion in this?
It is easy to complain about racism, Islamophobia and violence against migrants in Europe, but why are we surprised when terrorist attacks strengthen right-wing rhetoric and parties? Many campaigns demonise Islam and Muslims, but are we giving them ammunition to use against us by our own actions and those of our home countries? Europe is probably best described as a post-religious continent, where secularism in public life is the norm, albeit to different degrees depending on which country you are in. Most Europeans, therefore, don’t take kindly to being called Crusaders and infidels. I know that foreign policy can justify such inflammatory labels, but care and wisdom is needed in how we react to provocations such as Western military interventions and support for tyrannical regimes.
Furthermore, Arab societies are among the most racist in the world. Their racism is not limited to strangers, foreigners and black people; tribalism is also an issue. Discrimination is seen in laws governing residency, employment and the justice system itself.
Double standards are also at play in the Arab world. We condemn European countries for their apparent “Islamophobia” when Muslims face difficulties in getting permission to open mosques or make the call to prayer in public, but how easy is it for Christians to build a church in Arab countries?
It is true that European countries set very difficult conditions before granting refugees the right to permanent residence and nationality, but it does happen. How many Arab countries grant permanent resident status to anyone, let along workers who have been in the country for many years? It is a rarity.
There is no doubt that the situation faced by refugees is a major tragedy. We all bear responsibility for this and we will pay a high price for it in the future. However, while it is true that their rights were violated in their homelands prompting them to flee in the first ppalce, that does not justify violations of the same rights in Europe or elsewhere. All countries are bound by international laws and conventions, European countries included, and they should not be allowed to shirk their responsibilities towards migrants and refugees.