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The boat is full

Prasenjit Chowdhury |

In the 1990s, the catchy slogan – “the boat is full” – coined by the far-Right Republikaner Party in Germany had influenced most of the mainstream parties. In September 1991, just eight days before the pogram at Hoyerswerda, the right-wing popular magazine, Der Spiegel, splashed the slogan on its front cover, complete with an illustration depicting Germany as a massively overcrowded boat, surrounded by a sea of struggling humanity, with a sub-title ‘The onslaught of the poor’.

What a travesty of history that an overcrowded boat capsized and the visual of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body rocked the conscience of a Continent so severely that it had to rip open the gates. With Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan chock-a-block with Syrian refugees, victims of a civil war since 2011, it is ironic that the conscience of Europe, somewhat salvaged by Germany, Sweden, Italy and Greece, needed the death of a toddler to be stirred to action. The sight of the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and dying in the high seas while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has been virtually forgotten.

For millennia, people have scoured the globe, running away from hearth and home for food or from enemies or in pursuit of riches. In the process, they have spread their cultures, languages, diseases, and genes. In the late 20th century, the number of asylum applications in the developed world reflected the effect of civil war and terror. It peaked in 1992 and has declined ever since. The decline in asylum applications can be attributed to abating violence and civil war as much as tougher asylum policies. Economics and demography do matter in an environment of ethnic cleansing, if the experience of the Jews who fled Eastern Europe at the end of World War I is any indication. During the Bangladesh liberation struggle in 1971, an estimated ten million refugees had fled to India. The population of what was then East Pakistan was about 75 million at the outbreak of the genocide.

Migration has been a striking feature of European history. Greeks travelled extensively and built cities around the Mediterranean; Roman soldiers created an empire stretching from England to Turkey. Europe between the 4th and 7th centuries witnessed “the migration of the nations”, when tribes like the Huns, Goths, Franks and Angles marched and sailed into new homelands, creating the foundation of today&’s European nation-states. Europe was at the heart of another major phase of migration beginning around the 15th century and lasting for more than 300 years. Looking back at the 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems remarkable that migrants from different parts of the world travelled with very few restrictions. Particularly significant for Europeans was the “discovery” of the New World – the vast lands of North and South America and Australasia.

In the post-war years, countries like France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and some others recruited workers from less economically endowed parts of the continent and further afield. No country was more associated with guest workers – or gastarbeiter – than West Germany. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, such factors as family reunification, shelter to refugees and asylum-seekers got precedence over the economic imperative. More significantly, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989, eastern Europeans were increasingly tempted to look West, a trend that was reinforced in the early years of this century as the EU inducted former Soviet-bloc countries like Lithuania, Poland and Hungary.

The conservatism that marks European immigration policy in general is in stark contrast to its historical context of migration. It is a little surprising that the West imagined that eliminating its sworn enemies in West Asia and Africa such as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Bashar al-Assad, and Muammar Gaddafi would be either one-off games without any considerable after-effect or would be micro-managed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gone on record in expressing his disapproval about Europe playing host to Syrian refugees. France’s popular far-right leader Marine Le Pen is opposed to the very idea of European hospitality. Earlier too, Roma asylum-seekers and migrants from eastern Europe and the Balkans, who had been displaced from their ‘homelands’ following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had to confront racial violence.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in May 2003, more than four million Iraqi civilians were uprooted in one of the largest humanitarian crises of our times. Approximately two million of these refugees lived in desperate conditions and legal limbo in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon whose governments received barely any support from the international community. In comparison, just 100,000 Iraqis claimed asylum in the EU countries between 2003 and 2007. There were no legal routes to Europe for Iraqis fleeing persecution; this was exacerbated by the fact that the coalition troops and embassies within Iraq did not accept asylum claims. The vast majority of successful Iraqi asylum claims were made in Sweden, with European countries that joined the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ displaying the meanest attitudes towards displaced Iraqis.

Since the 1990s, both Centre-Right and Centre-Left parties of Europe began to implement laws that criminalised asylum-seekers and isolated them from the rest of society, by removing them from the welfare state altogether and/or marking them for detention and deportation. But dislocated civilian populations including refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), migrants, and stateless persons, regardless of their racial, religious, ethnic denominations, suffer from fear, violence, lack of resources, and hardship. The extreme-Right&’s identification of Muslim communities as a ‘threat’ had co-existed with its demonisation of asylum-seekers throughout the 1990s. The murmurs heard across Europe regarding the Syrian refugee crisis recall old fears.

In 1991, Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch, first warned that behind the formal institutions of what was then the European Community (EC) lay a shadowy parallel state – “largely undemocratic and unaccountable”. Its ulterior purpose was two-fold – to create a strong outer barrier to prevent asylum-seekers and immigrants from entering “fortress Europe”; and to develop mechanisms of internal control that would effectively police long-term residents who, although settled in Europe, lacked citizenship rights. This gradual growth of a parallel European Security State provided the basis upon which more and more categories of people, mainly Muslims, and including citizens as well as long-term residents, came to be caught up “within the ever-expanding loop of xeno-racism”.

What is ironical is that concerted military interventions that galvanised action against Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan was prompted more by a moral high ground than by the ground realities. Without conditions favourable for a Sunni uprising, the ISIS could have never reaped full advantage of the collapse of government created by the chaos in Iraq to wage their brutal war against the Syrian people. Hubris has an unmistakable habit to exact a price.