How Europe turned its back on humanity

Europe holds dear the tenets of tolerance, freedom, and human rights – except when it comes to migrants.

Migrants look out of a window on the Medecins Sans Frontiere (MSF) rescue ship Bourbon Argos as it arrives in Trapani, on the island of Sicily
People don't risk death unless they are desperate for life, writes Shabi [EPA]

When talk turns, as it often does, to the issue of defining Europe’s identity and values, its handling of the current “migration crisis” has to be one of the core concerns.

For a continent that collectively holds dear such tenets as tolerance, freedom, and human rights, how does Europe square those with its current approach in dealing with mass migration?

We are facing the largest movement of refugees since the World War II.

The number of people forced to leave their homes rose to a record 60 million last year – with most of those people fleeing Syria’s horrific war or coming from counties such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq.

READ MORE: UN warns of alarming level in global refugee numbers

For some time now, the news has been of migrants making the most appalling and terrifying journeys and all too often dying in the process. 

But the European response so far has been to vilify the people risking everything to get here, while fortifying borders: building more walls, erecting more fences, sending more militarised patrols, and raising the possibility of bombing the “death boats” that make those perilous journeys across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Overwhelmed by the crisis 

There is no debate around the billions of euros spent building and guarding borders against migrants and refugees – no question that this money might be better allocated.

Instead, Europe seems to have swallowed wholesale the idea that it is about to be “swamped” by “illegal” migrants, overwhelming us with their filth, extremist terror, and less developed cultures.

Sometimes it is politicians using those damning, demonising words – such as British Prime Minister David Cameron describing people trying to get to the UK from a migrant camp at Calais as a “swarm”.

The Listening Post – Politics and polemics: Europe’s immigration story

In reality, most refugees aren’t trying to get to Europe: There were 626,000 asylum applications across the EU’s 28 member states – and a collective population of 500 million – last year. 

The UK has committed to take in 500 Syrian refugees, of the four million fleeing the war in that country.

Lebanon, meanwhile, has taken in over a million people from Syria, while Turkey, with around two million Syrian refugees, is hosting the highest numbers.

But in Europe, at a politics and policy level, discussions focus on the concern that being somehow more “lenient” to migrants – by absorbing more, say, or by creating safe, legal migration routes, so that people trying to get to Europe don’t end up dying, horribly and avoidably – will give electioneering ammunition to the far-right.

Dragged into hostility

Apparently, Europe is so troubled by an influx of dark-skinned foreigners, so enthralled by intolerant positions on migration, that liberal policies on the issue would actually be vote-losers.


But is this really where we want to go – allowing Europe’s racist far-right to drag us into an ever more hostile response to a humanitarian crisis? Are these the values we have decided should define us now?

Across Europe – and with the exception of Sweden – it seems that the countries that have the lowest levels of migration are the ones where anti-immigrant parties are better represented in parliament.

It is pure ignorance that is fuelling this sentiment – and yet, instead of challenging these views, politicians are pandering to them.

As the walls go up around the borders of “Fortress Europe”, they have blocked our capacity to see connections between our policies and the people living beyond our fortified frontiers.

For it seems that when the West gushed about free market globalisation, it was only intended as a one-way street: We get the cheap goods and the forcibly opened markets, while those in the developing world get the broken economies, the corrupt governments and the failed states that so often arise as a consequence.

Creating stability and security

And when we talked about creating stability and security, we only meant for us – not for those in countries whose repressive dictatorships we are supporting and bankrolling and furnishing with ever more effective weaponry.

It is ravaging, ideologically driven austerity that has crashed living standards across Europe, decimating public services and welfare, causing worry over resources and access to them.


And when we insisted military “interventions” in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya, were humanitarian and liberating, we didn’t plan or even think about the aftermath; the horrendous consequences that might follow.

Meanwhile, if neoliberal politics have created a staggering inequality of wealth, security and opportunity, it is now also informing our reactions to it.

After all, it is the logical response of neoliberalism – a rampaging economic ideology that puts profits before people – to see desperate migrants and refugees as an inconvenience to the smooth ticking-along of advanced capitalism: A disruption to the passage of goods; an inconvenience to the flow of tourism.

It is a race-to-the-bottom rationale that has decimated employment markets across Europe.

It acts to further ferment resentment, from people worried about insecure and low-paid jobs, towards migrants coming into the workforce.

Desperate for life

The real target for both groups should be the employers who keep driving down wages, and the governments that allow them to.

It is ravaging, ideologically driven austerity that has crashed living standards across Europe, decimating public services and welfare, causing worry over resources and access to them.

People don’t risk death unless they are desperate for life.

RELATED: A call for EU cooperation on the migration crisis

People don’t usually decide to violently uproot families and lives unless that is the only choice available to them. Rather than dream of Europe, refugees often wish to return home, if they could.

In the endurance of long, dangerous journeys, in the resourceful capacity for survival, in the courage and tenacity of attempts to cross borders, in the persistence of a propelling, perpetual, hopeful life force in the face of unimaginable adversity, what people trying to get into Europe are repeatedly showing us is humanity.

And what we are showing, repeatedly, is that we have lost ours. 

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.