Europe, stop ‘branding’ refugees

Why can’t we see the painful historic echoes in our treatment of refugees?

A pair of sneakers left by a refugee lies in the wood near the Hungarian-Serbian border [Getty]
A pair of sneakers left by a refugee lies in the wood near the Hungarian-Serbian border [Getty]

Weeks ago, 12-year-olds at a school on the south coast of England walked into an English lesson to find a large image projected on to the whiteboard of a street in which all the houses had red doors. Next to the image, their teacher had written: “If all asylum seekers’ doors are painted bright red, what impact do you think this would have? Discuss.”

The class, of mostly white, working-class children had just been reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and learning about the yellow stars that Jews had been forced to wear in Nazi Germany. Around the same time, The Times of London ran a piece headlined “Apartheid of the asylum seekers on British streets” describing how asylum seekers in Middlesbrough, in the northeast of the country, had been accommodated in housing with red doors – so that they were marked out, and consequently suffered abuse.

Young Syrian refugees reunited with families in UK

The schoolchildren discussing the red doors couldn’t understand why asylum seekers were so housed. They found it sad that people coming from a country that wasn’t safe should be treated like that – even if unintentionally. They thought Britain was better than that.

Targets of abuse

Britain, meanwhile, had also been branding asylum seekers with red wristbands. Those staying in accommodation provided by a private government contractor in Cardiff, Wales, were told they must wear them in order to get access to food.

The red bands marked these people as asylum seekers, turning them into targets for abuse.  As Mogdad Abdeen, a 24-year-old human rights activist from Sudan, told The Guardian newspaper: “This wristband is discrimination, clear and simple. No band, no food. We are made to feel that we are second-class humans. People in Lynx House [where the accommodation is provided to asylum seekers] are scared of meeting new people in case they see the wristband and give them problems.”

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And it’s not just Britain. Across Europe, the treatment of refugees at an official level has raised alarm, because of wincingly painful historical associations. In Denmark, the government announced that arriving migrants would have their valuables taken from them.

Policies of 'othering', of marking a group of people as separate, different and somehow lesser, are taking place in a Europe that was supposed to be vigilant to early warning signals...

In the Czech Republic, refugees had processing numbers inked on to their arms – an awful reminder of the serial numbers tattooed on to Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.  

Across Europe, images of migrants show them in camps, on trains, amid barbed wire and guards and border patrols.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Europe is treating Syrian migrants in the same way Germany treated Jews. Nobody is saying that this is comparable to the systematic murder of six million Jews.

But these policies of “othering”, of marking a group of people as separate, different and somehow lesser, are taking place in a Europe that was supposed to be vigilant to early warning signals, to signs of discrimination, to practices that can so often lead to persecution.

Refugee crisis

When we talk about history in relation to the refugee crisis, it is to say that today’s mass movement of people is the largest since World War II. It is to point out that Europe’s legal obligation to take in refugees was set in place at the end of that war, because it was unavoidably clear that, had Europe (and the United States) not turned back boats of Jewish migrants during the 1930s, countless lives might have been saved.

Some might also say that, back in the 1930s just as today, there was hostility towards refugees amid financially strained times, and prejudice over the culture that “aliens” – then Jews (albeit European); now Muslims – would bring with them.

A migrant holds a placard on his bicycle at a makeshift camp in Calais, France [REUTERS]

We talk less about what we have missed, in our current treatment of migrants desperately fleeing war and persecution – the lapse in comprehension, the chasm over which our historical knowledge can’t leap into the present day.  

This inability to make the past relevant to the present day is a discussion point within the teaching profession. Richard Harris, an associate professor in history education at Reading University who has worked with the Council of Europe on education training, says: “The big debate is over the difference between teaching an account of something, and teaching to prevent something.”

He adds that, while people do learn about the Holocaust, “It is safely tucked away in the past, so they aren’t forced to confront the reality of present-day behaviour.”

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On top of which, European history tends to be taught in a context of nation states – and such a framing automatically creates boundaries and differences. Another approach, says Harris, might be to teach through transnational issues, such as histories of migration, protest or diversity.

Brutal persecutions

And the unpalatable element to this is that the positions that give rise to brutal persecutions, or genocides, or industrialised slaughter on a mass scale, have not disappeared. We might legislate against them, as Europe did after the Holocaust. We might warn against them, with our collective “never again” commitments.

But those views still live, submerged, diffused, shape-shifting but ever-present. That’s one of the reasons why the various policies “marking” migrants in Europe caused so much painful recoil: because the repetition feels like revival; because in that moment, the individual policy enactor has lost sight of what is being done, at a collective level.

As Europe is transformed by the rise of a xenophobic far-right – because such movements flourish in the misery of economic insecurity, work instability and a refugee crisis – our vigilance against persecution becomes ever more vital. And it is only by reaffirming, by writing again, declaring anew, by recreating every day and with every generation, that such commitment remains current and functioning.

Somehow, a classroom of 12-year-olds in England managed to grasp that. Let’s hope that, across Europe, the rest of us can, too.

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.


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