‘Don’t reduce people to just refugees’

13 October 2015

‘Don’t reduce people to just refugees’

Foto: Martin van Welzen

If you’ve seen the appalling pictures of refugees despairingly trying to get into Europe, you’ll be aware that we have to do something to accommodate them. At the same time the question arises as to whether Europe can cope with this influx and whether the arrival of migrants from other parts of the world – in particular from Islamic countries – will lead to cultural tensions. Professor Leo Lucassen, director of research at the Institute for Social History (IISG) says that ‘fortress Europe means that people are taking enormous risks.’ He was interviewed by Tijmen Lucie for the SP monthly magazine Spanning.

Tijmen Lucie: Is the current influx of refugees into Europe unique in recent history?

Prof. Lucassen: Not in terms of numbers. These were twice as high in the 1990s and after the Second World War even higher. What is certainly unique is that there have never before been so many people coming into Europe on ramshackle little boats. In those earlier instances many refugees came from Europe itself. In the 1990s, for example, principally from the former Yugoslavia, though there were also a lot from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, from Somalia. The way in which people are fleeing and the risks which they run in doing so are new. That’s because, since the Schengen Treaty was signed in 1993, Europe has increasingly closed its doors to the outside world.

In your opinion, what are the principal causes of this influx?

In the first place it’s a direct result of the creation of Fortress Europe, which means that people are taking far more risks, choosing to come by sea with all the misery that entails. Also, it’s caused by a number of hotbeds in the vicinity of Europe, in particular in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but also in Somalia and Eritrea, which are, moreover, the consequence of western military interventions.

What do you think of the attitude of right-wing politicians who say that we can’t cope with this influx into Europe, that we must therefore close the borders and accommodate the refugees in the region?

The latter has already been happening for some time. Between 90- and 95% of the refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Africa are already being accommodated in the region. The first point, that we can’t cope, is nonsense, because logistically Europe, as the world’s richest continent can easily cope. As I have already said, the number of refugees in the 1990s was twice as great as now, while at the time in Europe there were a lot of things going on, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Last year some 400,000 refugees came to Europe. That’s less than 0.1% of the European population. If Europe can’t cope, why can Lebanon, with 25%? Another thing is that the right-wing politicians claim that the influx of refugees is leading to disaster and to revolt and is bringing about a dislocating cultural divide. The refugees from Syria in particular belong to a well-educated upper layer of the population. They were bombed by Assad, because they were too critical. Europe should in fact be delighted with these refugees. So you have to screen these people as rapidly as possible, look at what they can do, offer them further training and get them quickly out on to the labour market. In that way the knife will cut both ways. The refugees will be given help and so will the ageing and in some cases demographically shrinking countries in Europe. If it’s a matter of ‘support’, politicians are too quick to assume that people can’t be influenced. If you explain clearly to the voters why you have decided to take so many refugees, and how you are going to do that, you’ll carry more people with you. That demands guts and leadership. Merkel does that better than Rutte (Dutch Premier – translator’s note). You don’t hear anything about that.

What did you think of the column in de Volkskrant (national daily – translator’s note) by René Cuperus (a political researcher who works for a foundation linked to the PvdA [Labour Party] – translator’s note) in which he argued that mass immigration could serve as the game-changer to accelerate the Americanisation of our society?

He has far too gloomy a vision. The idea of an exodus from Africa and the Middle East to which he adheres is not based on the facts. In fact, the numbers from Africa are low and in a relative sense if even falling. Americanisation of the labour market has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with the neoliberal wind blowing through Europe since the 1980s. If we decide to be more lenient in our reaction to migration in Europe, we must immediately ensure that we step up our monitoring of the labour market. The means whereby the guarding of Europe’s borders is being intensified, we could be using to keep a close eye on employers who use clever constructions to try to exploit both migrants and non-migrants and in that way in some sectors, such as transport.

In your opinion, what should Europe be doing?

Fortress Europe has a charter for refugees. That must be complied with. I agree with Juncker that the accommodation of refugees cannot be left to individual countries. The differences are simply too great. One country readily admits Syrians, another not at all. Moreover, capacities are far from being equally large. We have to sort this out on a European level and divide the refugees fairly, after which they can start working as soon as possible. If it’s a matter of people migrating here simply to find work, then the most politically achievable scenario is that you find out which sectors in Europe you need workers and then grant temporary work permits. A more revolutionary and in my view better approach would be to allow such migrants, just like their equivalents from within Europe the freedom, under certain conditions, to enter the labour market, but to begin with without access to social security. If everyone were immediately given access to benefits, the money would soon run out. But if a Ghanaian, for example, comes here and finds a job, he or she would also pay social premiums and in time have a claim on social security. If they don’t succeed in finding a job then life gets very hard and many would choose to cut their losses and return to where they came from. As things stand, however, return is that last things such migrants would do, because to get here they’ve taken far too many risks, including financial risks. That’s why there are now millions of unlawful migrants in Europe who are forced to live under appalling conditions. With the system I propose you would get people out of illegality and at the same time ensure the survival of the social insurance system. Those who stay are successful on the labour market. The rest go back or commute back and forth. You see this also with Romanians and Bulgarians who have come here. This self-regulating system via the labour market is in the end the best solution for labour migration from outside Europe. But this proposal is probably a bridge too for politicians. If it can’t be done, we’ll simply have to rely on temporary work permits.

Don’t you think that the influx of refugees from principally Islamic countries will lead to tensions in our western societies?

I don’t think we’ll have many problems from the Syrians, because most of them are liberal Muslims. That’s why they’re fleeing from both Assad and Isis. Moreover, the vast majority of Muslims in Europe are very moderate in their views. The proportion of radical, violent Muslims is extremely small, which I don’t want to say means they can’t represent a danger. . But the idea that Muslims as such won’t integrate into European society is in any case not confirmed by those who monitor integration. Research does, it’s true, show that there is a considerable group of conservative Muslims, but as long as they don’t bother other people, something which hasn’t happened on a large scale, then the way I see it there’s nothing to worry about. I do see all kinds of social problems, which have in part to do with the migration policy being pursued. You certainly have to do something about them, but the cultural problem is in my view greatly exaggerated.

How would you judge the performance of the Dutch government up to now?

Extremely weak. Should there be an agreement on the acceptance of a greater number of refugees when it comes to the revised distribution, I’ll be curious as to whether our politicians do show leadership and not, like Zijlstra (Hans Zijlstra, parliamentary leader of the governing VVD – translator’s note) make assertions that they later have to withdraw. Merkel is more realistic in this matter. She is also of course a master of power politics, but she has recently understood that Germany has to deal with a and that you have to generate support for that. She’s doing a good job of that. The Dutch government has shown little evidence of the same, but I’m also still hearing too little from the opposition.

Do you agree with SP leader Emile Roemer that the western powers through their frivolous interventions bear a heavy responsibility for the refugee problem?

He’s absolutely right. And that must also play a role in the arguments of politicians as to why we have to ease up. Moreover, many people have again forgotten that in the 1990s we took in on average 35,000 refugees a year. And yet the Netherlands didn’t collapse. The last five years we have had an average 20,000. As a politician you’ve got to be honest about these things. Also, in a certain sense the Syrians are a godsend. They are the best educated, non-western migrants whom we have had here. In recent times. So let’s take advantage of that.

How do you explain that all of a sudden there appears to be Europe-wide support for taking in the refugees?

That’s to do with the fact that people can identify more with the refugees. As a result of a number of terrible catastrophes which have been covered in the media, such as the Syrian boy who was washed ashore dead on a Turkish beach, empathy with the refugees amongst the European population has increased. There’s some cynicism about this, because maybe it’s just hype. In part that’s true, but I’d rather have this hype than that we shrug our shoulders and simply walk on by. If we don’t sit up and take notice as a result of these gruesome images, then we have lost the humanity of which we in Europe are so proud.

What do you think of these citizens’ initiatives to help refugees?

Fantastic, but we need to be realistic. I don’t think for instance that taking Syrian refugees home en masse is a good idea. Many people don’t know where to start and it isn’t the best option for the refugees, either. This is something that has to be solved logistically by the government. But the citizens’ initiatives have certainly shown that many people can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

In your opinion, what should a humanitarian refugee look like?

If someone is recognised a refugee, then that person must as quickly as possible shed the status of refugee, because no-one wants to be reduced to that. The policy must be aimed at making people speedily independent, and having them integrate into the society and the labour market. Israel did that reasonably well in the 1950s and ‘60s in the case of the diaspora Jews who went there. Whatever else you think of Israel, they had in that a properly efficient system, which could serve as an example.

Leo Lucassen is director of research at the International Institute for Social History and Professor in the History of Migration at the University of Leiden.

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