Future thoughts on the ‘refugee crisis’
What will people say about Europe’s framing of and response to the ‘refugee crisis’ in 100 years?
On the 18th of March, 2021, a boat carrying around 100 refugees caught fire on the coast outside of Libya. The people onboard alerted Alarm Phone, but no help came. At one point some local fishermen reached the burning boat and managed to rescue around 45 people. 60 people drowned.
This horrific event did not receive much news coverage in Europe, because in truth it was nothing new. So far that year, an average of 6 people had drowned every day in the Mediterranean Sea, while they were trying to reach safety in Europe. The deaths outside of Libya that day, and all the ones before them, were not an accident. Rather, it was the direct outcome of the racist European migration and border policies at the time.
Between 2015 and 2021 several thousand refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea (because of underreporting it is difficult to know the exact number). The refugees that made it across were placed in overcrowded and poorly equipped camps.
It was the time of the so-called European ‘refugee crisis’. When referring to the events as a ‘crisis’, however, European leaders rarely had the stories and experiences of refugees in mind. The ‘crisis’ was not the human suffering and the lives lost. Rather, the ‘crisis’ was that the Others were making their way across Europe’s borders.
The overarching narrative was that white Europeans had to be protected from the dangerous Other. Thus, border and migration policies were not developed to secure the safety and human rights of those fleeing — they were developed to keep the people fleeing out of Europe at any cost.
In 2016 the EU-Turkey deal came into force — stating that refugees coming into Europe from Turkey would be sent back. Following this, the number of refugees coming across the border from Turkey decreased and the EU called the deal a great success. The fact that the deal forced refugees to chose ever more dangerous migration routes and spend longer time in dreadful camps seemed to be of less importance.
In 2017, the EU made another deal with Libya. It provided resources and training to the Libyan coast guard so that they could intercept boats with refugees and pull them back to Libya before they could reach Europe. It was well-known that Libya was not a safe place, and many refugees were subjected to severe torture, violence, and rape.
As a result of European policies, rescue boats at sea were also few and far between. The EU replaced search and rescue initiatives with ever-stricter border control in 2014. NGOs and other volunteers who rescued people from drowning were often criminalized and sabotaged. This directly leads to more deaths.
Today, we say that we cannot understand how this could happen. How could European countries commit these horrendous crimes while everyone was watching? Why did so many people support it? Why didn’t more people work harder to stop it? We tell ourselves that something like this could never happen today.
But is that really true?
During the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, Europe’s racism was evident in policy and public discourse. Refugees and migrants racialized as ‘non-white’ were portrayed as dangerous, violent, sexually deviant, and lazy. It was the same racist narratives used to dehumanize, exploit and murder people during colonialism and the Second World War. Still, while allowing racist and deadly policies in 2021, a majority of Europeans distanced themselves from these past events. Most people liked to think that if they had been alive during that time they would have been on the good side, fighting for justice.
Further, it was not only refugees and migrants that faced racism in Europe at this time. Black Europeans, Indigenous people and Europeans of Colour all faced different forms of racial discrimination. Their presence in Europe was continuously questioned, and they experienced everything from daily microaggressions to discrimination on the job market to harassment to deadly violence. All this while Europe referred to itself as ‘post-racial’.
Many white Europeans back then still clung to the racist ideas and behaviors of their ancestors, reproducing systems of oppression while telling themselves that they would never repeat past mistakes. So my question is; if we suddenly found ourselves back in 2021, would we act differently?