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Open the doors! The humanitarian crisis of immigrants calls Europe to an epochal change

Open the doors! The humanitarian crisis of immigrants calls Europe to an epochal change

By Gisella Evangelisti *

Waves of Syrian fugitives continue to arrive in Europe, directed mainly towards solid Germany or cold Sweden, the northern European countries that have the greatest social benefits for refugees: good health services, advanced schools, comfortable houses, no frills. For those who come from cities in rubble, or from refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon where the aid of the United Nations does not meet their basic needs, these countries are considered a paradise on earth, despite their dark and icy winters. To avoid the dangers of sailing in the Mediterranean, from Libya to Italy, where there have been more than 2,900 deaths in 2015, more and more Syrian fugitives (and to a lesser extent Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans) are now following the Balkan route, crossing with all possible means, by car, on foot, in trucks, in trains, in boats, at least 6 or 7 countries: Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, before reaching Germany. This route is less expensive than the previous one to Italy, which could cost around 5000 euros per person, but also through the Balkans, around 2000-3000 euros must be paid to some organized and armed transport mafias.

That is why the arrivals of fugitives (Syrians and not) requesting asylum in a European city have increased a lot, compared to 2014: in August-September there have been 5,000, 6,000, 9,000 people a day (up to 70 thousand in a weekend ), for a total of 600,000 people so far this year. It is the largest humanitarian crisis facing Europe since the Second World War.


Walls on the European borders?

The fugitives, on their journey to the "Eden of the North", after having overcome endless obstacles, have found in their way the barbed wire that Hungary has placed on its border with Serbia. Stop, "DO NOT COME HERE", has been the harsh message of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But when a group of them, after being ordered to return, nevertheless decided to advance on foot along the highway from Budapest to Vienna, in an inexorable march of 200 km, 250 motorists came from Vienna to pick them up. Those arriving by train in Munich, Germany, are greeted with welcoming applause, refreshments and stuffed animals for the children. "NO, do not come again," insists Prime Minister Orban, beginning to build a wall on the border between Hungary and Serbia, contravening the rules of free movement between European states. He prefers not to remember that 300,000 Hungarian citizens were welcomed as fugitives in Western Europe, after the popular revolt of 1956, suppressed by the Soviet Union.

Where can they go then, all these families with children, forced to sleep in the open? We have to go back. But one after another, the small Balkan states that emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, such as Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia, close or open their borders trying to slow down the flood of refugees: where to host them while they wait for their asylum applications to be evaluated?

Meanwhile, frantic meetings are held between the interior ministers of the 28 European countries, to distribute the fugitives according to the economic possibilities of each state. A decision always postponed, due to the resounding "no" of the United Kingdom and the countries that belonged to the Soviet bloc (such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania). The latter have received economic aid and reception in the European Union when the Soviet Union collapsed, but now, they do not want to fully assume the responsibilities of the European Union, among which is the reception of refugees from wars or humanitarian crises, according to the 1951 Geneva Convention. "We do not want to Islamize ourselves," they say in Hungary, "by allowing so many Muslims to enter." In addition, these countries remain emigration lands: there are a million Poles in Great Britain, for example, or thousands of Romanian workers in the construction sector, all over Europe, as well as thousands of women from Ukraine or Romania (many from women with university degrees), resigning themselves to caring for the elderly in Italy or Germany, to allow some economic improvements for their families.

The limits of politics

So, should the redistribution quotas for fugitives be mandatory or not? Yes, no, no. The problem is that the European Union is not a federal state, like the United States, with a central government, but a confederation of states that have common lines only in economics, not in politics. To satisfy everyone, after months of debate, on September 22, a minimum agreement was reached to redistribute 120,000 people between some countries. "A ridiculous figure" is defined by the president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Junquer. Well, within the year it is expected that there will be one million immigrants entering European territory.

It is clear that so far European politics have given inadequate responses to the humanitarian crisis caused by wars and famine in Africa and the Middle East, both in terms of containment (immigrants continue to arrive uncontrollably, despite the dangers they face) , as well as security (shipwrecks or deaths on land continue).

Reception problems

Reception also presents many problems, since in many cases, such as in Italy, the selection procedures between those who have the right to asylum and those who do not have a waiting time that is too long, (they can reach a year) thus maintaining a large fluctuating population, who are not allowed to work, and which can create tensions in local communities. In Italy, almost half of those who request it (44.7%) obtain asylum, in the rest of Europe 58%. The cost of maintaining the immigrant for the state is 35 euros a day, which includes accommodation, food and 2.5 personal euros for the immigrant, and is managed by Non-Governmental Organizations, most of which strive to give a good service, but there is no shortage of cases of mismanagement or even mafia infiltration. When an immigrant is denied a permit to stay, they are forced to repatriate, paying for the return flight.

However, despite the fact that clandestinity has been a crime for a few years, many immigrants decide not to return to their country and continue (badly) living in Europe as illegal. There is no official data in this regard. Italy does not have embassies in many African countries where many immigrants come from, such as Gambia, Niger, Mali, therefore it is impossible to train future immigrants or facilitate reintegration plans in their countries.

From the clandestine situation to jail, the passage is brief, and at this moment there are 24,174 immigrants in prison, the majority for less serious crimes or for not having a residence permit. It is clear that concentrating immigrants in crowded reception centers is not the best solution, nor is it the best solution to unload hundreds of fugitives in a city, warning the authorities at the last minute. The most efficient country in evaluating who has the right to asylum or not is the small Switzerland (which does not belong to the European Union), which in 48 hours is able to select immigrants, but does so with very restrictive criteria, therefore the country is not considered a desirable destination.


A duty, and a bet of mutual advantage

Something seems to have changed, however, in the perception of the problem by the European public opinion, after the publication in the media, of the shocking photo of the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, 3 years old, drowned in the sea between Turkey and Greece, portrayed face down in the sand, with his red polo shirt and blue pants, as if sleeping. Even the harsh English prime minister, David Cameron, said he was moved and now Britain is beginning to host a few thousand migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, launches a bigger bet, announcing that her country will receive 500,000 Syrians a year for two or three years: “Germany is strong and supportive,” she says, “and it can do it. It is a moral duty ”. Additionally, the expected decline in the working-age population in Europe in the coming decades must be taken into account, which endangers its public pension system. More workers are needed to pay social contributions. Well-educated and eager to work, Syrians can make a big contribution to the local economy. In addition, Merkel knows that the majority of Germans are favorable to immigration, while she was against canceling the debt to Greece.

In short, towards the middle of September there is one of the rare moments when people who listened with a feeling of helplessness and anguish to the news of so many shipwrecks of immigrants, or of so many attacks on German reception centers by neo-Nazi groups , feels that politics could change, and takes to the streets calling for a Europe consistent with its declarations of democracy and justice. 90,000 people give life to a demonstration in London, with the participation of the new leader of the Labor Party (a party so far more well aligned with the government's neoliberal policy), Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time activist in defense of peace and public welfare (welfare).

In Italy, thousands of people in 60 cities take off their shoes and walk barefoot, in symbolic solidarity with the dispossessed, arriving at the International Film Festival in Venice.

But it's not just about words.

In Brussels, the fugitives camped in front of the Ministry of the Interior to present their request for asylum (a procedure that takes a few days there) are assisted by a network of 23,000 volunteers.

In the northern country of Iceland, (the only one that opposed the payment of the debt contracted by speculative bankers), inhabited by only 330,000 people, who should officially receive only 50 fugitives, well 12,600 families are willing to take in refugees and find them work .

Web pages are being opened in Germany to connect fugitives and German families willing to take them in, while in Italy this initiative has been operating for a long time in cities such as Turin and Milan. The Roma soccer team collects funds for international refugee support organizations, in Munich the mythical Pepe Guardiola, former Barcelona coach and now Bayern Munich, invites to open a calcium school for refugee children.

The message of Pope Francis, son of Italian immigrants in Argentina, also comes into force to question Christianity: that each parish, each convent, each religious institution, he says, welcome a family of immigrants. And he sets a good example by starting with hosting two families in the Vatican. A minimalist message, it will be said. A parish has thousands of inhabitants (although those who attend churches may not be more than a few hundred), so it is not impossible for the community to “adopt” a family, host them in the early days, help them find work. However, looking at it carefully, if there are only 25,000 parishes, not counting convents and other institutions, and a refugee family has an average of 4 people, we are talking about hosting about 100,000 people (but without openly giving this figure, that many it would seem huge).

And in the United States Congress he asks the country, born of immigrants, to welcome them and that money is not the only objective of the economy, at the expense of humanity. "Land, freedom and work" are a right for all human beings, he also affirms in the United Nations. We must say no to the arms trade, to the death penalty, to inventing enemies to wage wars. Instead, we must face the inequalities and poverty created by an unjust economic system, and give more representation to the countries of the South of the world in a reformed UN. Later, the pope goes to visit prisoners and homeless, trapped one and the other in a seemingly dead end destination, to say that instead, there is hope for them too, if society mobilizes.

The size of the problem in the world

"We are facing an ocean of pain," recalls the pope, referring to the masses of migrants fleeing war and hunger. We cannot look away. The most widespread press in Europe does not love to remember the western responsibilities in the management of the colonies and post-colonies, the support for bloody but useful regimes to favor European business, or on the contrary the overthrow of dictators as in Libya and Iraq, with the result of plunging these countries into chaos, in addition to the arms trade, the discharge in Africa of toxic electronic waste, among other negative factors. According to Amnesty International and Caritas, there are currently 60 million displaced people, and of these, only 1.5 million found a place in Europe in 2014. The countries with the most immigrants in the world are Africans. In addition, Lebanon hosts 1.1 million Syrian refugees (¼ of the country's population, as if Italy welcomed 15 million immigrants), Turkey 1.5 million (2.6% of its population), the Jordan 672,930.

However, their economies have not collapsed, on the contrary they have improved due to the presence of the fugitives due to the greater demand for services, paid for by the fugitives themselves with their savings, or international aid. Turkey makes a great effort to provide health care and education in refugee camps with its own resources.

Zero refugees, on the other hand, in the very rich Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, which instead use part of their enormous oil revenues to finance sectarian wars in the Middle East. Its huge skyscrapers are built by Asian or African immigrants, who work in harsh conditions, being isolated from the local population. Many domestic workers also live in semi-slavery situations, when their passports are stolen and they are subjected to all kinds of abuse.

The United States, with its 230 million inhabitants, now has 11 million immigrants to regularize. As Obama tries to legalize at least 4-5 million, the Republican majority in Congress opposes it. In 2014, 480,000 illegal immigrants have been arrested, while young people from Central America continue to enter. Donald Trump, the super-millionaire Republican presidential candidate for the United States, proposes to hunt them down one by one, with operations that would cost no less than $ 10,000 for each immigrant expelled. In total, a huge sum. What is at stake, in the coming decades, is the supremacy of the white population, which would end with the regularization of the growing and growing Latino population, the vast majority favorable to the Democrats. Of course, there are other voices, such as those of Senator Bernie Sanders, (candidate for the presidency by the Democrats), who recalls that the tremendous inequalities in the country and unemployment (higher than official figures) is due to the globalization of the capitalism, where large companies do not pay taxes and constantly cut jobs by relocating it to countries with lower wages, or by automating it (for example, there are hardly any cashiers and cashiers in the CVS pharmacy chain, but machines where you can pay).

As regards the Syrian fugitives, Obama has promised to take in 100,000 of them as of 2017.

The immigrants settled in Europe: which interculturality?

Germany, with its 2.4 million Turks among its 82 million inhabitants, has no major problems with them. Good relations with the Turks come from the times of the Ottoman Empire and Prussia. In 1961, after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Germany made an agreement with Turkey needing temporary workers for 3 years (gastarbeiter), who were content with low wages, but in practice did not want to return.

Now in cosmopolitan Berlin they make up 5% of the population, Turkish literature festivals are held, Turkish restaurants are appreciated, a superstar footballer, Mesut Ozil, is applauded. The Turks ask for greater security against neo-Nazi attacks, to be able to vote in municipal elections, a quota in public offices, and the teaching of Turkish in schools, to maintain their cultural identity. The linguistic issue is very important, because on the other hand, families that speak only Turkish are the most disadvantaged on a social level, their children drop out of school more easily, and they have fewer job opportunities.

The situation in France is more complex, with its 62 million inhabitants and 6 million immigrants, the majority Arab from the former Algerian colony, as well as from Morocco and neighboring countries. The Arab population is concentrated in suburbs, where in 2005 a revolt against the police broke out, killing two Arab teenagers, and was repressed by Sarkozy. Young beurs (that is how the children of Algerian immigrants are called) live in a suspended state, an “identity in process” that is neither French nor Algerian (lived with ambivalence, especially by the girls who return there on vacation, and they reject being malvistas as "easy", because they dress in the French way): many evade school, clash with the police, live off micro-crime. While society is debating whether to assimilate or integrate them (with equal rights), the political moods of Arab immigrants can paradoxically shift from a traditional sympathy towards the left, more attentive to their rights, towards the Front National de Marine Le Pen, (far right) with their slogan “We cannot take in all the fugitives of the world. No to Brussels, yes to France ”. In other words, old immigrants, who may have lost their jobs due to the crisis, feeling threatened by the arrival of new immigrants, could end up allying themselves with racist and Islamophobic parties like the Front National.

Fears and reality

The humanitarian crisis facing Europe at this time not only represents an enormous logistical and organizational challenge, as we have seen, but above all it stirs deep emotions, exposing the vulnerability produced by the disappearance of borders, (the "they are invading us" ), or fear of the "Other", the Unknown who enters our field.

It is the same sequence of emotions that an individual experiences when they are told that they have very little time to live, observes the Slovenian psychoanalyst Zizek: denial (it is not possible!), Anger, negotiation (it is expected to postpone the problem), depression, (¡ we are lost!) and finally acceptance: it is part of life (or history): what is worth doing then?

For now, in many, rage and uncertainty prevail. “What will happen to us, to our youth who do not have work, to our lifestyle, if we are“ invaded ”by people from other cultures, among them the dangerous Islamic fundamentalists, who dress women in black and preach the war on the infidels? Will we fill our cities with shacks? ”These are the most common fears, fueled by right-wing parties, such as the Ukip in Great Britain, the aforementioned Front National, or the Italian Lega. In Italy, among the 60 million inhabitants, there are about 5 million immigrants settled for a long time, who constitute 8.3% of the population. In recent years, the financial economic crisis has produced youth unemployment of 40%; 100,000 young people have had to emigrate in 2014, and, unsurprisingly, the debate on whether and how to welcome the waves of fugitives has reignited.

In a Tuscan town of 300 inhabitants, who have traditionally voted for the left, men who work outside all week feel that "their women and children are in danger" due to the temporary arrival of 20 fugitives.

A single act of robbery and murder of an elderly couple by an Ivorian in Sicily has made other events invisible in the press and in the collective imagination, such as those involving immigrants who have died to save the lives of local people in situations of violence.

It is necessary to give more diffusion to real data, instead of to "repeated lies" that in the end, as Goebbels said, are taken for granted. For example,

One cannot speak of an invasion, because even if all Syrians and Eritreans moved to Europe, they would be only 5% of the population.

Immigrants are not a burden on the social system: according to a recent study by the OECD, (Organization for Security and Development) in almost all European countries (for example in Italy) immigrant families have paid more taxes to the state of how much they have received from him in social benefits.

Immigrants do not increase unemployment, as they want to work and adjust to the demands of the market.

Possible alternatives

The risk of being invaded is immanent in global capitalism, Zizek continues. If it is true that migrations are part of human history, in modern history they have occurred due to colonizations (which included the slave market), wars and the search for better opportunities: now more crises and more are foreseen. migrations due to climate change. There will be great pressure on the industrialized countries.

The most important lesson, Zizek argues, is that humanity must prepare to live in a more flexible and nomadic way, "national sovereignty" must be redefined and new forms of cooperation must be invented with the countries that see their people emigrate. The European Union is beginning to establish common rules, new funds for countries that host immigrants, greater assistance from United Nations agencies for populations in conflict zones.

"Bring peace to Syria," a Syrian teenager told us, "and we would be fine in our country." Syria has had a civilization for 10,000 years. The UN and the entire world are calling for a dialogue and a compromise between the powers that have geopolitical interests in the Middle East, such as Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Israel, France, Great Britain, among others, since their support for some or another group in conflict have reached a stalemate, which penalizes populations.

In Europe, it is necessary to provide correct information, disseminate the most successful integration experiences of immigrants (they occur especially at the school level, overcoming difficulties), and more realistic strategies, such as the widespread reception of immigrants, in small communities that they take responsibility at the local level for their integration. While the large numbers are scary, the small can be handled, as Pope Francis has somehow suggested.

Europe must choose whether to accept its economic and demographic decline, renouncing the values ​​on which it was founded, and retreating into an increasingly besieged and dangerous fortress, or accept the challenge thrown at it by a boiling world, coming to discover , sooner or later, that cultural miscegenation is a wealth. In Italy, in the last Mathematics Olympics at the school level, a student of Chinese origin and one of Russian origin have been among the first, despite having had to learn a new language. The will and desire to improve that most immigrant students have is something that the teachers wanted to see also in the local.

Political debates remain passionate on television sets, in the streets and on social media; the difficult and hitherto elusive union of the European states takes a step forward and one backward, as is predictable when faced with epochal changes. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian premier who put wires on the border, now says he will accept the immigrant quotas set for his country. Probably not to have a cut in European funds. Anyway. But we cannot afford to be pessimistic.

* Gisella Evangelisti is an Italian writer and anthropologist. He was born in Sardinia, Italy, studied literature in Pisa, anthropology in Lima, and conflict mediation in Barcelona. She worked twenty years in International Cooperation in Peru, as a representative of Italian NGOs and consultant for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF, in English) in Latin American countries. She is the author of the novel "Red Butterflies".

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