As the wave of migrants and refugees flocking to Europe each day gets bigger, xenophobia and racism seem to grow exponentially, thereby making a mockery of European Union’s official motto “United in Diversity.”
However, while the fear and hate displayed by many Europeans against the massive wave of desperate souls arriving on the continent’s shores is a surprising and even shocking development only for the most naïve and ignorant amongst us, what is all too frequently ignored is that Europe is in dire needs of immigrants.
But first a word or two about racism.
European societies, just like the United States of America, were never free of contempt towards immigrants and have always relied on a particularly racist narrative to explain their socio-cultural development.
Since the early 1990s, numerous scholarly works (see, for example, A. G. Hargreaves and J. Leaman, Racism, Ethnicity and Politics in Contemporary Europe, Edward Elgar, 1991) along with Eurobarometer surveys have revealed that European societies “exhibited high levels of xenophobia and racism” and “a desire to limit immigration and acceptance of refugees,” but also “readiness to exclude foreigners from certain social areas and arenas.” (T. R. Burns, M. Kamali, and J. Rydgren, “The Social Construction of Xenophobia and Other-Isms,” Unpublished Paper, 2001).
The idea that racism is alive and dangerously well in Europe is well documented in the edited book by G. Huggan and I. Law titled Racism Postcolonialism Europe (Liverpool University Press, 2009).
An EU-wide study titled “European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey” (2009) also found that racism is prevalent across Europe.
Indeed, while depictions of muslims as pigs as in the case of drawings in Jyllands-Posten, the Charlie Hedbo cartoon on a dead Syrian child, and the image in the Polish magazine wSIECI of a white woman, adorned with the EU flag, as she is being groped and assaulted by dark skinned male arms, may have caused outrage among many people, one cannot overlook the fact that these racist sentiments have an undeniable mass appeal among many Europeans today and that racism has staying power.
In fact, the above racist cartoons should be regarded as more morally adhorrent than the anti-immigrant cartoons that were popular in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, depicting the Irish as apes, the Italians as street filth, and the Chinese as parasitic locusts, by virtue of the fact that they occur more than a century later.
Such racist sentiments by white America, a world view that was intertwined with the country’s history of nativism and Anglo-Saxon and Nordic supremacy, also applied to other minorities, including Greeks.
Greeks in early 20th century America were treated as equivalent to dogs because they were considered to be of mixed race, “mongrels genetically inferior to their allegedly pure ancestors of ancient times and, therefore, incapable of ever approaching their accomplishments.” (E. D. Karampetsos, Nativism in Nevada: Greek Immigrants in White Pine County, Pella Publishing 1998).
As late as the 1930s, the sight of restaurants at the heart of the city of York City with signs on their windows that read “No Dogs or Greeks Allowed” was a common phenomenon.
Of course, while progress has been made in the last few decades on reducing racism, the immigration backlash in today’s Europe should indicate that there is no real cause for celebrating our progress.
Racism remains entrenched in many aspects of European life, just as it is in the United States where million of black youths experience stop-and-frisk while black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police.
What are the real reasons that many Balkan states have severely limited access to Syrians and Iraqis but have closed their borders to Afghans?
Greek alternate migration minister Yannis Mouzalas has gone on record saying that some European governments have asked Greek authorities not to send them black people and that Belgium asked him to go against the law, and “push migrants back in the sea.”
It is also quite possible that closing the borders to the Balkans was not simply a decision made by the heads of the police of a few Balkan countries, but an EU decision.
One could debate forever whether European societies are able, or have a moral obligation, to accommodate millions of refugees who are trying to escape from war-ravaged regions of the world. The fact of the matter is that the reaction of most European countries to the refugee tragedy — sealing off external borders, erecting barbed wire fences, locking up refugees in detention centers, and carrying out mass deportations — is triggered by xenophobia and racism.
Most European societies always looked upon immigrants and foreigners as invasive elements into their established social, economic, and cultural environments (until recently, Germany defined citizenship through ethnicity rather than birthplace or residency), and the concern with today’s massive influx of refugees to Europe is that it will change the face of Europe.
This is absolutely true. But a demographic revolution is already changing the face of Europe. Declining birth rates in Europe have made immigration an absolute necessity for future economic growth across the continent.
Germany has the lowest birth rate in the world, which partly explains Angela Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy.
Spain has one of the lowest fertility rates in the EU, with an average of 1.27 children born for every woman of childbearing age, compared to the EU average of 1.55.
Greece and Portugal are also experiencing declining population rates, mainly because of the economic crisis that has affected both countries since 2010, while Italy’s retired population is set to explode in the next decade.
According to the European Commission’s 2015 aging report, “the dependency ratio of over-65s to the economically active 15-64 age group will increase to 50.1 percent, from 27.8 percent by 2060. That means there will be just two potential workers per retiree, down from almost four.” (Leonid Bershidsky, “Europe Doesn’t Have Enough Immigrants,” Bloomberg View, September 3, 2015).
It is because of these demographic realities, i.e., the fact that Europe is aging, that HSBC distributed a note in October 2015 about the European refugee migration crisis that said “This is going to be a great thing for Europe.”
The aging of Europe’s population will have severe effects on economic growth, eventually making pension systems unsustainable.
According to some calculations, “Europe needs its younger population to increase by hundreds of millions more than the current rate over the coming decades.” (Leonid Bershidsky).
However, it is clear that not enough Europeans understand this. If they did, they would not be so eager to show first and foremost that xenophobia and racism remain very much a part of Europe’s contemporary social, political, and cultural landscape.