One of the biggest factors that must be taken into account when dealing with this phenomenon is the rise of xenophobia throughout Europe. While it is a system of thought that not only puts our continent to shame but also at risk, it is very much real and must be dealt with.
Xenophobia is the fear of ‘foreign’ people, normally expressed in views that see foreigners as invasive elements into an established society and cultural environment. Xenophobic groups throughout Europe talk about the need to preserve, be it the European civilisation or the cultures of the individual member states of the European Union. There are, however, certain aspects of the new strain of xenophobia in Europe which are based on simple misconceptions, and which can be dealt with by clear communication both by the politicians and by the media. I will be addressing some of these aspects in the following article.
‘Refugee’ or ‘Migrant’?
The first thing that needs to be done in order to help curb the rise of xenophobia in Europe is to treat this phenomenon as what it actually is, a refugee crisis, and not by what it is not, a migrant crisis. This difference is vital in the perception that people at home have of what is going on. The fault of the current misconception lies both with the politicians and with the media who have insisted in using the word ‘migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’. Therefore, many across Europe see these people as ‘migrants’, coming to their countries in order to look for work and for benefits. In the minds of many, these people are competitors: they have come for the resources that, in their eyes, rightfully belong to Europeans.
This, however, is simply not true. Migration for employment forms only a small percentage of the total number of people making their way to Europe. The majority of people come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Nigeria - all countries devastated by war. It serves to point out the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) definition of a ‘refugee’: these are people ‘fleeing armed conflict or persecution.’ This very much contrasts to the definition of ‘migrant’, as someone who will tend to move for reasons of work, education, etc. and is not under direct threat from any entity. It is not a question of semantics, but of perception. By making this clear, public perception across Europe will begin to change.
Misconceptions about Islam
Furthermore, much of the anti-refugee sentiment being voiced across Europe is rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment. People fear that the refugees will come to Europe and impose their religion on Europeans. For them, Islam is a violent religion that cares little for our concepts of freedom and human rights. It is, in the eyes of some, an attack on our Judeo-Christian civilisation. This is another misconception that must urgently be addressed. It is based on three false precepts:
1) Islam is a violent religion.
2) Islam is not a European religion.
3) Refugees are an invasive group.
To say that any religion is violent or peaceful is almost meaningless. More often than not, what one tends to find is that the followers of a religion will tend to warp the teachings of that religion in order to better satisfy their own preconceived view of the world. Islam is only as violent as the individual following it, and the same goes for Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Such claims are as unfounded as those stating that Islam is not a European religion. Religions are not the property of a particular geography, and are certainly not limited to national borders. Islam has been present in Europe since 711, when Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered the Iberian Peninsula, and remains a major religion of several countries in Europe (Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Hezegovina, Turkey and Azebaijan), and the minority religion of many others. While the ‘European’ status of the last two can be debated, they are increasingly connected politically and culturally to Europe.
Oftentimes xenophobia, racism, discrimination, etc. are based on fear of the unknown. The ignorance of many with regards to Islam, coupled with the misinformation diffused by mainstream media, feed this anti-refugee sentiment. This then morphs the misconceptions about the refugees: they are seen by some as an invasive group whose goal is to impose their system of beliefs on the already established societies of Europe. This narrative is indeed fed by the actions of certain Muslim extremists, be they within Europe or across the world.
All of this can and must be tackled with education and open dialogue. This would decrease the change of such sentiments arising, and foster greater cooperation and peace between the communities.
Misconceptions about the Asylum system
Lastly, this xenophobia is in part also born out of a fear that the individual member states simply do not possess the necessary financial resources to house any number of refugees, and that any that they do should be employed in solving the social and economic problems of the native population. This is further fed by a fear of ISIS and of the infiltration of terrorist elements through the current refugee crisis.
In order to dissipate these feelings, the onus is on the politicians to come up with a clear asylum plan, preferably on a European level, and then to communicate it clearly to the European people. Integration efforts must also be put in place for the refugees to be able to adapt to the societies receiving them. People need also to be informed about the measures being taken to properly register the refugees at the point of entry, and they need to be assured that they security is being guaranteed.
Overall, it is clear misconceptions rather than by deep-seated hatred for the ‘other’ are at the root of the rise in xenophobia in Europe. To help curb these sentiments, which are toxic to our society, transparency, clear communication and a solid asylum system are needed on the part of the politicians and the mainstream media.
What we can do is open our minds to new realities, educate ourselves on the crisis and the things that most concern us, and engage in meaningful dialogue. Europe has gone through many refugee crises and movements of people. We can, and must, learn from the past, stay true to our humanist traditions and construct a better future together.