Madi Pomreinke – How the current refugee crisis in Europe has given rise to representations of the racial “Other” as a threat to the nation.

The current refugee crisis in Europe is more convoluted than simple concern over ‘population growth” that has been proposed by much of the West. “Europe’s immigration crisis, if indeed there is such a crisis, is not one of numbers. It is a crisis and fear of the other, constructed as undesirable and different on imaginary criteria of affinity and inclusion/exclusion – historical, cultural, linguistic, corporeal – that demarcate our spaces versus Other spaces.” (Mekonnen, 504) The truth behind the concern for growing numbers of refugees approaching Europe is a question of mobility rights and individual desirability as determined by European hierarchies of race, age, gender, and class. Due to the economic processes of globalization, these rights reflect structures of power and racialized systems of inequality that can largely influence the mobility of individuals of migrant or refugee status. These mobility rights are structured by nation-state discourses that often have nationalist and racialized undertones. Nationalist dichotomies of inclusion and exclusion that are drawn on lines of “we versus them” are key factors in the racialization, criminalization, and securitization of migration that contribute to the stereotype of the migrant or refugee as a racial “Other”, and as a threat to the European nation.

The racialization of immigration in Europe is largely compounded by attempted controls at “cultural identity” of the nation. Although individuals of Western background, whether migrating within Europe or from other Western nations, compose the majority of European immigration, this fact is largely ignored. The overt racism apparent in the erasure of “white” immigration contributes to the racialization of the “undesirable” migrant by creating a contrast. The ignorance of intra-Western migration proves that this issue is not a question of numbers, but a question of immigrant identity and desirability – Western immigrants remain unacknowledged because they already are part of the “criteria of belongingness” that is required for them to be considered part of the nation. In contrast, this presents migration as exclusively from Third World nations, and portrays individuals from these nations as outside the national identity.

Furthermore, this depiction of an exclusive Third World migration as a “flood”, “mass”, or “explosion”, puts an inherent negative context on those who are a part of this movement of people. These descriptions describe migration as a primarily Third World issue driven by population growth and poverty, which erases the fact that most of these migratory situations stem from outcomes of Western colonial intervention or consequences of economic globalization. It also creates a sense of fear within European communities, spreading anti-immigration sentiment throughout the population. By stereotyping different forms of life such as Islam versus Christianity, the migrant is constructed by popular prejudices in the media, by the government, and throughout the community. These stereotypes are used to subordinate refugees and migrants, naturalize differences and exclusion, and equate migrants with various economic, social and political problems. Through stereotyping an “Other”, the nation reaffirms the sense of a “we” identity and is able to divert attention from the actual causes of national issues.

Immigrants are constructed as immutably different, whether through language, religion, or culture, and depicted as unwilling or unable to adjust to host societies. It is suggested that refugees are selfish in their utopian visions of new lives for themselves, and need to accept the living areas allocated to them. Refugees are expected to “respect laws and social norms of European states”, which privileges the Western lifestyle and constructs migrant culture as inherently opposite and unable to coexist peacefully. These racist depictions are used to explain the apparent welfare and unemployment of immigrants by constructing them as the problem, rather than as complicated individuals in a racialized system.

Stereotypes of refugees and migrants often relate to the criminalization of these individuals as well. These constructions of criminality are largely based on assumptions of race, gender, and class, and are predominantly associated with racist ideals of global terrorism. The construction of the migrant largely relates to their general status – they can easily be a criminal, a terrorist, a threat, but if wealthy, become viewed a tourist or an investor. “Persons of a certain skin colour and/or bodily features are considered carriers of “undesirable” qualities and equated with terrorism, drugs, crime or diseases.” (Mekonnen, 508) In regards to gender, female refugees and migrants are largely stereotyped as being active in sexual trafficking or other sex work, when in reality they are often the victims of these situations. Many migrants are constructed as drug traffickers, and due to the large increase of Islamophobia post-9/11, most brown bodies from the Third World are conflated with ideals of terrorism and fundamentalism. Because migrants are the targets of paranoia and aggression, they become associated with guilt transference, and become seen as the source of this aggression, which constructs them as external threats. This criminalization of immigration allows governments to implement ever more intense and abusive security measures in the name of “protecting” the nation from the “threat of migration”.

The securitization of migration allows for governments to control and pacify their populations with the appearance of “protection”. In reality, harsher border controls, increased registration and surveillance of migrants, and redefinitions of asylum rights just push migration further underground, largely erasing the consequences and human rights abuses that it can create from the public sphere. Governments promise that exclusion of migrant threats guarantees survival and a cohesive cultural identity. They portray inclusion of immigrants as essentially damaging to national boundaries – political, economic, and social – and as a “dissociation factor” that will destroy the nation from within. These securitization measures reinforce the stereotypes and perceptions of the racial “Other” as the source of these national problems, equating them with threat, danger, and undesirability. Creation of special police and security forces such as the Trevi group in Europe conflate mobility and migration issues with terrorism and violence, increasing the racist assumptions that limit these individuals and placing them at further risk for human rights abuses.

Altogether, the discourse surrounding the racialization of the migrant “Other” in the case of the refugee crisis in Europe is largely linked to racist stereotyping of Third World individuals, the criminalization of these individuals and their immigrant status, and the securitization of migration. Europe’s policies regarding migrants and refugees are overtly racist and nationalistic, based purely on xenophobic assumptions of threat that limit the mobility rights of those who are already marginalized by the Western capitalist system. It is grossly hypocritical of Western nations to ignore the consequences of their imperial and global economic interventions by rejecting those who have been left most vulnerable in globalization’s economic wake. It should be absolutely required for these states to take in an adequate amount of refugees and migrants, and to grant these individuals equal mobility rights. However, to do this, there must be steps toward international economic change that does not cause such global turnover and inequality of nations, as well as a further pursuit of overall global equality of social, economic, and environmental conditions.