Opinion & Features

Refugees are all ‘migrants’ now

Angela Merkel at the Bundestag (AP)

The refugee crisis in Europe continues, inexorably, to worsen. Even as countries such as Austria impose caps on asylum applications and limit numbers passing through, more than 2.5 million Syrians languish in Turkish refugee camps, many dreaming desperately of Europe. Not all the million-plus refugees who recently came over the EU’s borders are from Syria, of course. There are also Iraqis, Afghans and Africans fleeing war. Then there are the economic migrants – Macedonians, Kosovars, Albanians and North Africans – looking for a better life.

When you consider the indelible photograph of the Syrian boy face-down in European sand, the attacks on Paris and the sexual assaults in Cologne, it’s clear that we live in confusing times. The greatest mass migration in our history – greater even than the movement of people after World War II – is taking place. It is forcing us to question who we are, what we stand for and where our responsibilities begin and end. Unlike in the mass movements of the last century, today’s refugees have cultural and religious backgrounds which seem completely alien to our own.

The guiding principles of secular Europe really have their basis in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, no matter how distant they seem now. This crisis therefore poses a problem for us and no doubt will change Europe for generations to come. But should we turn this great tide of humanity away? Can we refuse to take in refugees and remain true to ourselves? I think not.

Over the past year I have watched the Facebook feeds of some of my German friends go from welcoming euphoria to anxiety and indignation. I don’t blame them. I vacillate between fear of the other and what this means for Europe’s future and the sense that we have a responsibility as Christians to recognise our common humanity and help these people fleeing a brutal, incomprehensible war. Surely only true desperation could send people out over the choppy waters of the Mediterranean in the middle of winter, I have to remind myself.

The situation is all the more difficult because it is so hard to separate truth from falsehood, given the abundance of shoddy reporting, the souring public mood as government agencies are overwhelmed and the emotive language around migration.

In fact, the very word “migrant”, used by the British press of all flavours, has sounded loaded to me ever since Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome roughly a million refugees. “Migrant”, you see, implies someone who has a choice, when many of those fleeing to Europe don’t.

The German press, in the heady days of “Mama Merkel” last summer, used the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker”. But 2016 has seen a shift to the terms “migrant” and “migration crisis” in some outlets.

When I first read about the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, I must confess I became a conspiracy theorist. It must, I thought, have been some sort of far-Right plot to discredit refugees and fuel Germans’ fears. Sadly, it turned out that the mass sexual harassment of women did indeed take place. By trying to hush up that the mob aggression, the police and some journalists ended up playing into the hands of extreme Right groups. The wider German public is now less inclined to believe the Lügenpresse (the “lying press”) or indeed lying government officials.

Since Cologne, alarmist rumours about refugees, spread predominantly through social media and taken up by some newspapers, have proliferated. From refugees getting tokens for brothels in one Bavarian town to supermarkets having to close down because refugees are eating food without paying, the misinformation fuels fear and indignation. Many stories are later discredited by proper reporting, but the damage is already done.

I asked a German friend who lived in North Africa during the Arab Spring to give me her perspective. Now living in Germany, she thinks the media there is either pretending there is nothing wrong or else vilifying refugees. Measured debate, she says, now seems impossible. A duty of care for victims of war must be upheld, yet the huge influx is causing genuine problems.

Of course some of the horror stories are true, she says. Cultural differences in relation to women are inevitably part of the problem. Of course ISIS is going to send terrorists disguised as refugees, she says. But what about the millions simply fleeing conflict?

According to my friend, officials are now so overwhelmed that refugees are wandering around without being registered. There is simply no one available to register them. It goes without saying that many never receive even a basic introduction to Germany’s cultural norms.

If refugees do succeed in registering then they have to wait in cramped camps or remote villages while their applications are reviewed. Their boredom and anger grows day by day, aggravating tempers already shortened by suffering.

Anna Arco is editor-at-large of the Catholic Herald