From One Crisis to Another: ‘Not in our backyard’ in the context of the war in Ukraine
Recent weeks have shown heart warming European solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Although this response is important and necessary, it provides a stark contrast with the treatment of non-Western refugees in the aftermath of the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’. Iris Beau Segers discusses the role of narratives in shaping these different responses to refugees and highlights the urgent need to address the unequal treatment of people fleeing from danger.
Photograph by Maria Teneva, under CC license.
In 2016, I started writing a book about local protests against asylum seekers in urban spaces, in which I explore how stories circulating in media and society contribute to shaping people’s responses to arriving asylum seekers. The past two months have shown just how important those stories can be.
Mobilization against asylum seekers: the role of storytelling in the local space
The case presented in the book goes back to 2015, during the so-called refugee crisis. This was a period in which mobilization and violence against asylum seekers increased across various European countries, most notably in Germany, but also in other places such as the Netherlands. In the book, I present a study of local protest which took place in the autumn of 2015, against the establishment of an asylum seekers’ centre (asielzoekerscentrum, AZC) in a multi-ethnic and relatively deprived neighbourhood in the city of Rotterdam. In the study, I explore the roles of local urban conditions, and stories circulating in the neighbourhood, in the media and on social media, in inhabitants’ mobilization against the establishment of an AZC in their local space.
The analysis of these stories and conditions paints a complex picture. Unsurprisingly, mobilization against the establishment of an AZC in this neighbourhood was in part driven by xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiments among the white population, and media narratives about ‘bogus asylum claimants’ and ‘rapefugees’. However, protest was also motivated by stories about grievances related to poverty and inequality, a recent history of crime and violence in the neighbourhood, loss of faith in the democratic process, and a strong distrust of all politicians, including those with anti-immigration views. Overall, what became clear was that it was not the local conditions per se, but the ways in which they were shared and activated by residents’ stories, that drove mobilization against the AZC in this neighbourhood.
An absence of angry emojis
Although mobilization against this particular AZC in Rotterdam died down in early 2016, and the AZC was permanently closed in July 2021, protesters have occasionally posted news articles about new arrivals of asylum seekers in their Facebook group (most recently in October 2021), typically followed by a string of angry and vomiting emojis, and sarcastic commentary. However, as I write this today, in April 2022, the group has been quiet for months, even when the Rotterdam area is preparing to provide beds for 2000 Ukrainian refugees (to compare: the AZC was home to 400-600 people).
Their silence, however, is not surprising. It fits perfectly within a trend already documented by survey data: 78 percent of respondents in a representative study of the Dutch population conducted in March this year agreed with the statement that ‘the Netherlands needs to generously take in refugees from Ukraine’. In comparison, at the end of 2020 only 29 percent agreed with the statement that ‘the Netherlands needs to take in more refugees who are now in refugee camps in Greece’.
Why does the majority of the Dutch population feel so differently about (non-Western) refugees in Greek refugee camps, compared to refugees fleeing from Ukraine at the current moment? I argue that the way in which both media and government have responded to the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 and its aftermath, and the current war in Ukraine, most likely present us with a part of the explanation. This is where stories come in.
Crisis narratives and draconian measures
By now, a wealth of literature has addressed how European media and political discourse drove a ‘crisis narrative’ in 2015, when 1.3 million people crossed the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe, half of whom originated from three war-torn countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This crisis narrative translated into widespread coverage of the seemingly ‘uncontrollable’ movement of refugees (or ‘migrants’, as they were often called), and was utilized by various governments to justify a range of draconian measures to limit and control the number of people arriving on the shores of Europe. Such measures include the prosecution of activists who saved people from drowning in the Mediterranean, and the detention of refugees in unsanitary and overcrowded Greek camps in the midst of a pandemic.
The impact of this crisis narrative persists. Since 2015, conditions in Greek refugee camps have ‘dramatically worsened’. In January this year, humanitarian organizations warned that thousands of refugees – many of whom are minors – have insufficient access to food due to ‘conscious’ policy choices on the part of the Greek government. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have recently become the victims of a political standoff, after Belarusian president Lukashenko made false promises of safe passage into Europe, seemingly in response to EU sanctions on his regime. Now, hundreds of people remain trapped in a forest between Poland and Belarus, and have been for months - violently and illegally pushed back by Polish border forces. Earlier this year, more than 20 people were reported to have died in these conditions, most of them due to hypothermia.
Bogus asylum seekers versus blond and blue-eyed refugees
In 2015, the notion of ‘crisis’ was mostly connected to the refugees themselves, and the potential impact that their arrival might have on European societies: in terms of resources and logistics, national security, and perhaps most importantly, the cultural ‘otherness’ that was ascribed to them. Discussions about the reasons they had fled in the first place often took the form of distinguishing between so-called ‘real’ and ‘bogus’ asylum seekers.
Today, the notion of crisis is applied in a markedly different way. Media coverage emphasizes the suffering and resilience of the Ukrainian people, for example by presenting the war through the eyes of the refugees, who are the clear victims of atrocities inflicted upon them by a Russian aggressor. In other words, now the term ‘crisis’ refers not to refugees, but to the war that has killed and displaced Ukrainian citizens, tied up with fears of further escalation, and the disruption of the global political and economic order.
The juxtaposition of these two crisis narratives has also brought out public justifications for why Ukrainian refugees should be considered ‘different’ and therefore more worthy of our attention and assistance, compared to ‘regular’ (i.e. non-Western) refugees. This racial bias has become most apparent in references to Ukraine as ‘a relatively civilized county’, and Ukrainian refugees as ‘European people with blue eyes and blonde hair’. French journalist Philippe Corbe went as far to say that 'we’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives'.
Although the relative proximity of the war and its impact on European societies has understandable implications for how governments choose to respond, these narratives simultaneously contribute to dehumanizing and delegitimizing refugees who have also fled from Russian bombs but happen to have a Syrian passport.
A hierarchy of refugees during a ‘crisis of accommodation’
In the Netherlands, the government has been struggling to provide accommodation for ‘regular’ asylum seekers and refugees for months. In December 2021, the COA (Centraal Orgaan opvang asielzoekers, Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) raised the alarm, and spoke of ‘an accommodation crisis, not a migration crisis’, caused by a combination of various issues. First, many asylum seeker centres that were established in 2015 and 2016, have recently been closed after five years of operation. In fact, in the case I have explored, a five-year limit on the centre’s existence was one of the key promises that the municipality made to protesters. This problem however is part of a recurring pattern: whenever the number of asylum seekers in the Netherlands decreases, the Dutch government closes facilities and fires personnel, without consideration for future developments.
In addition, a third of the people (13,000) currently living in AZCs in the Netherlands have refugee status but are unable to move out of the AZC due to the lack of social housing units, a long-standing problem that has created waiting lists for Dutch citizens and people with refugee status alike. Among them are many Afghani refugees who worked for the Dutch and had to flee the Taliban in August last year. Finally, not many Dutch municipalities are open to housing asylum seekers, which has led to a situation in which 7000 people, among them 1500 children, live in temporary accommodation with no privacy, and limited access to medical or psychosocial support. The Dutch NGO Vluchtelingenwerk (Refugee work) calls the situation ‘alarming’, specifically emphasizing the negative impact on refugee children living in tents and large sport halls for months.
Whereas municipalities across the country have committed to providing 50,000 beds for newly arriving Ukrainian refugees, the COA has not managed to gain enough support for 1500 places for asylum seekers arriving from other areas of the world. As the Dutch government is preparing to house 150,000 Ukrainian refugees in governmental buildings, it continues to look away from the poor conditions in which ‘regular’ asylum seekers live. The arrival centre for asylum seekers in Ter Apel in particular has been under scrutiny for its overcrowded and unsafe conditions, which pose health and safety risks for the people staying there. The mayor of the nearby town of Groningen has expressed a sense of shame about the treatment of non-Western asylum seekers arriving in the Netherlands: 'It’s like a different category of people, I don’t know. We are breaking the law on all sides. It is shameful.' It is here where we can begin to understand the connection between crisis narratives in the media and political discourse, and the local embrace of, or resistance against, asylum seekers.
Suffering knows no borders
Dehumanization and stereotyping of refugees are not new phenomena, but what is different about the current situation is the ways in which previously implicit messages are now made explicit, for example through juxtaposing ‘normal’ refugees with ‘blue-eyed and blond’ refugees from a ‘relatively civilized’ country. Explicit examples of racial bias such as these have gained a lot of attention, and they have been criticized on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, in most cases the dehumanization of non-Western refugees comes in more subtle forms. For example, news outlets’ use of the term ‘migrants’ to refer to refugees is far from a neutral choice of words, as it implies that refugees’ decision to leave their country is somehow voluntary, contributing to stereotypes of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. Intentional or not, such word choices are indicative of the implicit ways in which European media has contributed to a public lack of empathy for non-Western refugees. Recent events such as the UK proposal to send asylum seekers to camps in Rwanda show the inhumane treatment of those fleeing from danger is only intensifying.
Human suffering knows no borders. Solidarity with the Ukrainian people is important and necessary, and human compassion on the scale seen these past months is encouraging and heart warming. At the same time, it highlights Europe’s dehumanization of non-Western refugees and the urgent need to address the unequal treatment of people fleeing from danger.
Asylum seeker - An individual who is seeking international protection. In countries with individualized procedures, an asylum-seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which the claim is submitted. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee was initially an asylum-seeker.
Refugee - A person who meets the eligibility criteria under the applicable refugee definition, as provided for by international or regional instruments, under UNHCR’s mandate, and/or in national legislation. However, this term is also used to generally refer to a person who is forced to flee to escape persecution or armed conflict, regardless of legal status.
Migrants (economic) - Persons who leave their countries purely for economic reasons unrelated to the refugee definition, or to seek material improvements in their livelihood. Economic migrants do not fall within the criteria for refugee status and are therefore not entitled to benefit from international protection.
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