The heart of anti-migrant discourse always traces back to fear, no matter the logic; it finds its roots in fear of Islam, fear that social and government aid will be usurped, fear of perceived inferior or unfamiliar ethnicities, and fear that a continued influx will dismantle existing government structures. Although many people are sympathetic to the causes that force political and economic migrants to seek asylum in Europe, the feelings of guilt, discomfort and tension create a much less accepting attitude. There are vast amounts of statistics that can be read in a way that fuel this resistance to change; but often the numbers are simply the faces we put on our fear, to present it as rational, as preservation. It is our own fear of the unknown and discomfort at the prospect of being confronted with abject poverty and need that drives much of the anti-immigrant sentiment. But when are these fears valid, and when are they based solely on prejudice, selfishness or indifference?
The fear and ignorance surrounding the Islamic faith pervades most European countries today. Although critics of immigration in Europe use the possibility of radical terrorism as the scapegoat for their anti-Muslim rhetoric, the reluctance to accept change and integrate a foreign religion is the driving factor for most citizens. The deep and widespread propaganda perpetuating a view of Europe’s traditional Christian heritage makes the accommodation of different religions appear to be an insult to European white culture and to God. The United Kingdom’s David Cameron declared that Britain should “feel proud that [it] is a Christian country” in an Easter address. Viktor Orbán of Hungary also frames the crisis as a religious one, since “those arriving have been raised in another religion… a radically different culture” and that they should be denied access because “European identity is rooted in Christianity” (Traynor). The implied message is that the two cannot coexist, and therefore protecting Christianity comes at the price of keeping out those that practice Islam. The threat of decline of Christianity is even less powerful the fear of terrorism that engulfs Europe periodically after crises that shock the world; there is no arguing that there have been acts of radical Islamic violence. Many anti-immigrant supporters present the stories and statistics to stir up fear and to mask isolationism and exclusion of Muslim immigrants as “good decision-making” or “protecting our own.” Tragedies like the attacks on Paris and the fear they create have “moved the debate from a humanitarian to a security framework” by placing potential refugee perpetrators at the center of a perceived terrorism plot on Europe (Lahav). Seizing the shock that follows acts of terror, the media and politicians alike cry out that “nowhere is safe from the malign designs of Islamist fanatics,” blaming the institutions that are unable to keep refugees out for creating the circumstances that allow Islamic violence to occur (Coughlin). One security analyst points out that people often “connect terrorist attacks to the refugee influx” without taking into account the fact that many nations like Italy and Greece with the highest numbers of migrants are “at low risk of international terrorism” (Crabtree). In 2016, there were 1274 documented acts of radical Islamic violence; only eight were in Europe. In fact, according to the CATO Institute, the chance of being murdered by a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion a year, including those refugees coming from Muslim-dominant and Muslim militant states. In no way should the rarity of Islamic terrorism excuse the level of disgust the public should have towards such acts of violence that occur, but it is simply illogical to correlate terrorism with the alarm associated with the spread of Islam.
Many Europeans view migrants as a “drain on the system,” fearing that they are coming across the ocean to take European jobs and benefits. The welfare state of Europe has been a hotly contested issue when it comes to migrants. In Sweden, which has absorbed many refugees and migrants in the past two years, much of the far-right rhetoric emphasizes the idea that migrants are taking the benefits and social welfare belonging to the native Swede elderly and poor. In the United Kingdom, politicians emphasize that “a disproportionate number [of migrants] are coming for benefits,” citing statistics that show a higher proportion of foreigners claiming child and housing benefits (Dalwar). These numbers are employed in attempting to prove laziness or loose morals of migrants, coming to leech from richer European states. This idea fuels the fear that there will not be enough to go around for European nationals, and that if they were to become elderly, sick, or unemployed that all of the benefits of the state of which they are legal members will be used up on these foreigners. Selfishness is a human state, and nations are easily led into it when they fear they will lose what they believe is rightfully theirs – especially in a time when generosity is viewed as a vice at worst and risky at best.
There is an attitude and a stigma surrounding economic migration from African countries especially, that people leaving their homes in search of a better life are not as deserving of European protection, aid, and opportunities as those fleeing persecution. But Europe has always been a country of movement when food and work were scarce. Even the smaller movement from rural to urban cities happened on a massive scale, and European immigrants rushed onto New World shores when Europe was overcrowded and out of work. Europeans should have a relatively recent memory of a time when the necessity to leave one’s homeland in search of a better life was urgently upon them. There are also multiple studies, including one done by University of Oxford in 2016, showing that migrants are more likely to be unemployed. This furthers the argument of anti-immigration groups that refugees and asylum-seekers are more a detriment to the nation than a benefit. However, when we examine the lengths to which migrants go to achieve better lives and attempt to find meaningful work, we can hardly describe them as lazy – in fact, they personify an extraordinary desire to be useful and an insuppressible work ethic. In an area where the “employment rate and relative wage of low-skilled workers have been declining for years,” the fear of losing jobs to migrants is a legitimate one, and the criticism of unemployment and benefit collection in migrants makes sense when work policy for refugees is ignored (Frum). Migrants contribute to the unemployment rate so highly because they are legally forbidden to work in most European countries until their paperwork is processed. This application process can take years, if it happens at all, leaving them with no other option but to collect welfare and other social services.
It appears that the existing governmental structures in place in Europe, particularly the EU, are increasingly unable to handle the added pressure that mass migration is creating. The countries most affected by migration are flailing under the weight of more people and not enough organization and funds – Italy and Greece both have undergone financial crises in recent years, with a crippling effect on their ability to absorb immigrants in mass amounts. Their southern cities have become home to migrant camps that resemble slums, and the administration of asylum applications is unacceptably slow and inefficient due to the lack of staff and funds. This creates the aforementioned issue of migrant unemployment, which fuels a whole host of apprehension on the part of EU nationals. Debates over migration have created polarizing lines in European politics and allowed newly formed radical right-wing parties like the Northern League of Italy and the National Front of France to overthrow traditionally powerful parties in their respective governments and gain momentum in policy-making. The Schengen zone, long praised as a hallmark of European freedom and mobility, is beginning to crumble as high-traffic areas reinstate border controls to prevent migrants from circumventing the Dublin regulations and applying for asylum in more welcoming nations. More and more, the unrest among all the European nations and the desire to keep people out is leading to the crumbling of the EU while national leaders bicker over ways to divide the burden and ignore the root causes. This instability is certainly a cause for fear among citizens, who rely on their national governments for basic rights and protections, and whose governments have usually worked in collaboration with the rest of the EU to present a united front. With the increasing skepticism of the Euro and the shockwave of Brexit, the immigration crisis presents one more terrifying factor threatening a fragile, teetering European state.
With the massive influx of foreign peoples also comes a well-founded fear of cultural dilution or loss of tradition. There is a strong nationalistic sentiment that runs deep in European blood – that Europeans look a certain way, that the people have been there for centuries and that Christianity is intertwined with European history. Nationalism is not always harmful when it cultivates pride in one’s culture and heritage, but when it morphs into a fear of change and growth, or gives way to racism, prejudice, and close-mindedness it can be a powerful and restrictive force. While the numbers seem overwhelming in and of themselves, in comparison to the entire European population they are but a drop in the ocean – not enough of a force to overthrow longstanding culture, but enough of one to enact understanding and appreciation of a global culture. Even so, the rise of far-right populist parties and reemergence of radical nationalist and white supremacist parties points back to an inability to overcome perceived racial and ethnic differences or inequalities. These groups instigate and perpetuate fears and stigmas about the different nationalities entering Europe in the media. Through propaganda, and in public and intimidating displays of dissent, they contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy violence and hatred on both sides and perpetuate a mistrust of foreigners.
Not all people who oppose the mass migration into Europe have malicious intent, and not all of these fears come from a place of ill will or intolerance – history has proved that fear and self-preservation are powerful motivators. But when fear assumes the forms of ignorance, greed and prejudice it becomes a practically insurmountable obstacle, a hydra-headed problem preventing refugees’ assimilation into European culture.
Coughlin, Con. “Islamic Terror Could Drive Europe into the Arms of the Far-Right.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 26 July 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Crabtree, Justina. “Is the Threat of Islamic Extremist Terrorism Spreading to Central Europe?” CNBC. CNBC, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Dawar, Anil. “Migrants ‘milking’ Benefits System: Foreigners More Likely to Claim Handouts.” Express.co.uk. Express.co.uk, 20 July 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Frum, David. “Closing Europe’s Harbors.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 June 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Lahav, Gallya. “The Global Challenge of the Refugee Exodus.” Current History. N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Traynor, Ian. “Migration Crisis: Hungary PM Says Europe in Grip of Madness.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.