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Scapegoating the refugees

Scapegoating the refugees

A tide of increased xenophobia in Europe in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is making refugees pawns in the debate over terrorism, writes Salah Nasraw

On a street corner in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek, a small crowd of visitors gathers outside the fortified building of the German embassy early in the morning on each working day.

While some are seated on cheap fixed outdoor benches, others seek shelter from the scorching sun under trees or stroll back and forth waiting for the consulate’s reception windows to open.

This is the location of what is meant to be a reception area for visa applicants who have waited for days, sometimes weeks, to make an online appointment to submit the required documents.

Anxiety is locked on the faces of those who are waiting as they exchange stories about the arduous task of getting a Schengen visa to travel to Europe.

Sitting in the open-air waiting area, it’s hard to imagine that these people plan to travel to Europe for business, medical treatment, education, family reunions or tourism. Many are turned away in frustration after brief questioning and a quick examination of their papers by a faceless clerk who speaks through an intercom from behind a bullet-proof glass window.

Only those with the required documents (bank statements, property deeds, a marriage certificate, an invitation letter and so on) will be allowed into the consulate after passing through a metal detector and a body scan and then going through another tedious process of vetting and checking their documents.

In other EU embassies in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries the scene is not very different. Visa applicants, some with family members within the EU, sometimes have humiliating waits of days at a time at EU consulates. Only the lucky ones will be able to collect their passports with visas stamped in them and often weeks later.

The emotional condition of a visa applicant who has had to go through such a humiliating experience and then is denied a visa is not difficult to imagine.

Of course, the requirement made of some foreign nationals to obtain a visa before entering a given country remains a sovereign matter and falls within that country’s right to protect its security and national interests.

Yet, visa policies should not be used to hinder economic, cultural and human exchanges, including the right of those seeking a better life abroad or protection from persecution or tyranny.

If history can teach us anything, stringent visa restrictions, such as those imposed by European consulates on ordinary travellers, have never been successful in stopping migrants from trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, sometimes in small fishing boats or by trekking through the cornfields of Eastern Europe.

Indeed, the migrant tragedy of epic proportions this summer has manifested Europe’s failure to establish flexible visa policies and respectful procedures that serve to advance human, political, economic and cultural relationships between Europe and the peoples of the southern Mediterranean who are bound to it by historical ties and shared interests.

In a way, the influx of refugees into Europe this summer, with all the horror stories experienced during their journeys witnessed by the world as a whole, was a firm show of the degrading experience of failed attempts to get legal entry to European countries.

Unfortunately, the anti-Europe or anti-immigrant far right on the continent that is now capitalising on the unprecedented migrant crisis triggered by the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and fears of increasing terrorism is hardly making things easier.

It looks set to lead to new get-tough policies by European governments that tend to appease hardliners and give home security priority over humanitarian issues.

In the days after the wave of deadly attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on 13 November, the European Union agreed to rush through changes to the passport-free Schengen Zone by the end of the year that would tighten checks on the external borders of the 26-nation area.

The planned changes, which will allow for “systematic and obligatory checks at all external borders for all travellers,” are a further blow to the Schengen Zone as a pillar of European unity and freedom.

The changes will also include new migration policies for asylum-seekers gathering in immigration “hotspots” and measures to put pressure on Italy and Greece to do more to process migrants.

Throughout Europe, right-wing politicians have seized the opportunity to warn against accepting any more people fleeing war and persecution in Muslim-majority countries.

 In France, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Belgium, far-right politicians have demanded an “immediate halt” to all intakes of migrants. Some, like French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, have warned that “Islamic fundamentalism must be annihilated.”

In Britain, more than 420,000 people have signed a petition calling on the UK to “close its borders.” Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which 3.8 million Britons voted for in the 2015 general elections, said the EU was “seriously imperiling our security”.

Across the Atlantic, the party of fear has also seized on the Paris attacks. The US House of Representatives has passed a bill sponsored by the Republican Party that will make it harder for people fleeing war-torn countries to come to the US.

The legislature has also suspended a programme allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the US until key national security agencies certify that they do not pose a security risk.

More than half of US state governors have voiced their opposition to letting Syrian refugees into their states, even though the final say on the matter falls to the US federal government.

According to a Bloomberg poll, most Americans agree with the governors and with Republican Party presidential election candidates seeking to project a firm stance on national security ahead of next year’s elections.

By contrast, other politicians, though fearful of the right-wing and media drumbeat for war against the refugees, have not been reluctant to attack such perceptions.

US President Barack Obama said his administration would remain committed to the refugee resettlement programme and derided his Republican opponents for being scared of “widows and orphans.”

French President François Hollande reiterated his country’s “humanitarian duty” to welcome 30,000 refugees over the next two years. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has warned against scapegoating the refugees.

Western worries that a surge in the number of refugees entering Europe from Syria has allowed jihadists to sneak into EU countries unchecked and unnoticed seem to be highly overblown.

A report that a passport found near the remains of a suicide-bomber in Paris purporting to belong to a Syrian refugee turned out to be false. Almost all those accused in the Paris events, including Abdel-Hamid Abaaoud, the presumed mastermind of the attacks, also turned out to be French or Belgian citizens.

Yet, xenophobia in the wake of the Paris attacks continues to give rise to fearful headlines in the media coverage while politicians continue their drumbeat for war against Muslims, with some failing to distinguish between Islamic State (IS) group militants and ordinary migrants who are often themselves trying to escape the terror organisation.

Watching Western reactions to the horrific events of 13 November in Paris, one may have the helpless sense of déjà vu. It is a familiar pattern: political exploitation, fear-mongering, media hate speech and analysis from pundits and terrorism experts who blame Islam for global terrorism and defend unlimited state power.

While there is a tremendous need to focus on the failure of the American and European strategies in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, especially after its spectacular advances in Iraq and Syria, fundamental questions about the failure of American and European foreign policy in the Middle East are certainly unavoidable.

The roots of misunderstandings, negative perceptions, violence, conflicts and fears of all-out war between the West and at least parts of the Muslim world lie in the failure of the United States and Europe to build democratic relationships with Muslims and in particular with the Arabs.

Today, there is no evidence that Western nations are trying to learn from the mistakes, follies and colonial crimes of the past. Instead, they are allowing a rhetoric of hate, bigotry and Islamophobia to dictate the agenda of the US and the EU in the Middle East.

It is here that not only do the irrational demands to close down immigration flows into the United States and Europe matter, but so also do the current humiliating treatment of visa applicants by Western consulates abroad.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on November 26, 2015