Throughout Europe, asylum seekers are alienated and dehumanised in public discourse. Public policy and the media have transformed the public perception of an asylum seeker from a person whose presence is legal under international conventions to a liar, criminal, and cheat. A comparison of stereotypes used to depict Africans, Arabs and Asians a century ago with that used for asylum seekers today throws up chilling similarities. Europe, if these stereotypes are to be believed, is being swamped by evil, mostly brown, migrants eager to rob Europeans of their hard-earned wealth, and these people should be stopped. Moreover, it erroneously follows, if there were no controls then everyone would come to Europe.
From these feelings it is not long before the distinction between a brown migrant and a black neighbour who has known Europe to be his home all this while is blurred, and racist feelings towards asylum ‘cheats’ are transferred to the neighbour. All over Europe, ethnic minorities who have been residents for decades feel the effects of discrimination and prejudice. The asylum seeker is all too easily obfuscated with the ethnic minority resident. In the Swiss parliamentary elections last year, one poster of the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party – in a series of posters the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called atrocious – carried a caricatured black face and a slogan reading ‘The Swiss are increasingly becoming the Negroes’. One can only surmise the feelings of Black or Asian Swiss citizens. That party’s share of the vote also rose from 5% in 1999 to 27% last year. British history and perceptions of empire as taught in schools are loaded with racist assumptions and practices, and the intellectual and cultural atmosphere still holds up black and brown people to be fundamentally inferior, if insidiously rather than overtly.
In a recent paper on asylum seekers and state racism in Europe, Liza Schuster argues that as states devote more time, energy and money to asserting control over migration and publicise these efforts, a spiral of fear is created over an apparent loss of control. It is this fear that hardens migration policy. And it is this same fear that feeds a growing number of countries’ ‘forward-looking’ policies that may not target, but inevitably affect, their ethnic minorities.
Techniques that had supposedly been consigned to a dark European past have been revived in policy towards asylum seekers – forcible and unfair dispersal, detention and deportation. These measures are now deemed reasonable, and parallels can be seen in how ethnic minority residents are treated. French pilot Lotfi Raissi was detained arbitrarily for five months on false allegations that he trained the September 11 hijackers and released when no charge could be laid against him. He believes that he was a victim because he was Arab and Muslim, and finds widespread support for this view. Asian participants in riots in Oldham and Bradford some years back found themselves receiving sentences far harsher than those handed down to white rioters.
Alongside this concern, European states’ deepest underlying fear – something they may not wish to admit publicly but increasingly express – is an increasingly plural, multicultural Europe. Five years from now, the first majority non-white child will be born in the Netherlands. In Belgium, estimates are that that will happen in twenty years. Michael Vlahos, writing in Tech Central Station in August 2003, notes that the Arab minority in Roman Europe (France, Spain and Italy) will more than double by 2050 to stabilise at 20 to 25 % of the population, while forming a larger proportion of the working population – this is when it ‘will come to occupy – for at least a slice of historical time – a unique demographic space’. So it is a long way away, but the ‘flood’ of foreign, often brown and Muslim, residents feeds a deep-seated racism and resentment on all sides. States, consciously guided or not, therefore feel the need to stem and mediate this transformation of their societies – and asylum policy only goes so far. But the spiral of distrust this perpetuates never seems to end.
In the Netherlands, populist right-wing leader Pim Fortuyn won widespread support on his anti-immigration platform before his murder by an animal rights activist. Pim’s party directed much of its racism towards Muslim migrants who were in their view unable to respect Europe’s liberal values and diversity. This was a fallacy. As the Muslim scholar Tim Winter notes, for Muslims in Europe, polls indicate that integration is no problem when ‘it signifies an enhancement and addition to what we already are, rather than an erasure and destruction’. Demands for citizenship tests, and for integration on ‘European’ terms, fail to define the culture into which immigrants should integrate, perhaps because the notion of an unchanging culture is illusory and feeds populist sentiment.
The British tabloid press in January 2004 scare-mongered over Roma who were ‘ready to flood in’ from the EU’s new member countries when they could in May. The Sun reported that ‘tens of thousands of gypsies are poised to flock to Britain’. The Daily Express, notes Arun Kundnani, states that Roma are ‘heading to Britain to leech on us’ and then apparently espouses their cause by warning that if they are let in, the Roma will become ‘figures of hate’. These concerns are hollow, when its imagery of floods and invasions does little to mitigate such hatred. The Nazis used similar language in the Holocaust.
Giorgio Agamben recently noted that the West’s political paradigm was no longer the city state, but the concentration camp, and ‘that we had passed from Athens to Auschwitz’. I liberally extend his metaphor, but it is a tragic irony that an increasingly borderless Europe has, when it comes to asylum and migration, adopted a fortress Europe mentality and regards its citizens as inhabitants to be moulded in a certain racist image. And non-white Europeans appear to be treated as if they were in a concentration camp, battered on all fronts, even if what happened at Auschwitz decades ago is still a long way from repeating itself.