Young children are washing ashore. People are drowning by the thousands. Armed police are leading herds of refugees into camps with little food and water. The situation is only getting worse as temperatures plummet and the desperation to escape violence increases. It has been two months since the world saw the devastating image of drowned 3-year old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey, yet 77 more children have died at sea trying to reach Europe. And for the more than 700,000 people that have successfully crossed the Mediterranean into Europe? The majority of their asylum applications have been rejected. These grim facts reflect the failure of the international community to resettle and repatriate the millions of refugees escaping war and turmoil. Few countries have volunteered any help, and many have rescinded their previously lenient policies by abruptly closing their borders. This morally deficient response must stop. As the gravity of the crisis escalates, especially with France closing its border in response to large-scale terrorists attacks in and surrounding Paris, the international community must coordinate a collective response and encourage countries to reduce border controls and soften strict immigration policies.
Hungary is perhaps the most illustrative example of a country with exclusionary policies. As a common crossing point on the way to Northern European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, Hungary has experienced an influx of people seeking asylum and resources as they pass through. Unfortunately, growing xenophobic sentiments and anti-immigration policies have prevented these refugees from receiving meaningful aid, and have frequently subjected them to brutal treatment. Tear gas and water cannons are not a humane way to treat masses of people seeking refuge from violence, yet that is what Hungary has reserved for these immigrants. In the process, Hungary has been exposed as a country in violation of international law and EU protocols. It hardly seems to care, though, and recently spent 100 million euros on a razor-wire fence and border police intended to block migrants and refugees from entering the country. Such resources could instead be spent building accommodations and supplying refugees with necessary resources such as food and water. We should not be hearing refugees claiming that in Hungary: “They are treating us like animals, worse than animals.” And the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban should not be making public statements such as this one:
Let us not forget, that those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims . . . It is not worrying in itself that European Christianity is not barely able to keep Europe Christian? If we lose sight of this, the idea of Europe could become a minority interest in its own continent.
It is true that many of the refugees seeking asylum practice Islam, but that is no justification for the extreme xenophobia and inappropriate othering in Mr. Orban’s rhetoric. His hateful speech demands a response. As refugees continue to suffer from Hungary’s egregious treatment, the international community must address Hungary’s violations and encourage a shift in policy.
While Hungary may be the most obvious offender, it is clear that many other Europeans are also ignorant of the dire needs of refugees who are risking their lives to cross into Europe. Instead of offering these desperate individuals humanity and shelter, they are fearfully protecting their citizens from the intrusion of other nationalities.The current situation in Europe, exacerbated by these countries’s overpowering fears of demographic and ideological change in their populations, is unconscionable. For many refugees, each day is a battle between life and death, with countless important questions unanswered. Will they make it to Greece? Once in Europe can they overcome pain, starvation, and dehydration to reach the more desired Nordic countries? These refugees desperately need support; they do not deserve to be turned away over concerns about national identity or unfounded stereotypes based in religion.
What we are witnessing in Europe today is a disturbing humanitarian crisis in which the preservation of national identity and aversion to diversity take precedent over laws, morals, and human dignity. These policies reflect one of Europe’s bleakest times in history: WWII and the Holocaust. How could hoarding of refugees on trains leading to nowhere and the marking them with ID numbers on their arms not trigger horrifying memories of fascism? And just as Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jews as saboteurs of the Aryan race, Mr. Orban has frequently expressed a similar attitude towards Muslims, including statements such as: “I think we have a right to decide we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.” Even before this declaration and many months before the height of the crisis, Mr. Orban’s government posted signs throughout the country with messages like: “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!” Written in Hungarian, these signs can only be viewed as a form of propaganda to warn Hungarians of the possible intrusion of refugees that will threaten their livelihood. With similar messages being conveyed by other ultra-nationalist groups across Europe such as Le Front National in France and United Russia, it is nearly impossible to ignore the parallels between today and the early 1930s. An extraordinary value was placed on a unique national identity unthreatened by anyone or anything in WWII; and, the prioritization of national identity has reemerged today and continues to play an extremely influential role in politics and the treatment of individuals who are believed to threaten the “superior” identity.
President Hollande’s statements immediately following the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, further illuminate the danger posed by nationalism. In the evening of Friday the 13th, multiple bombings, shootings and a large-scale incident took place across the French capital and north of the city in Saint-Denis where a friendly soccer match was being played between France and Germany. Preliminary estimates suggest that over 100 people have been killed. The attack comes only ten months after Paris was rocked by two separate attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. These are horrifying acts of terrorism that clearly warrant the state of emergency declared by President Hollande. But our responses to these heinous acts must seek to bring about a lasting peace, rather than endless escalation and deepening xenophobia.
Hollande immediately closed France’s borders, a gesture primarily targeted at the refugees traversing Europe. In a public speech he stated: “The second decision that I have made is closing borders. We have to assure ourselves that no one can enter in order to commit any attack whatever that may be.” This emergency measure is justified in the short term while French citizens face heightened risk. But vehement nationalists must be prevented from making such a measure permanent. We cannot in good faith restrict the possible destinations for all refugees for the fear of some harboring terroristic intentions, and the refugees who have already arrived must not be demonized. The immediate characterization of millions of individuals under one narrative would be dangerous and demoralizing and yet another reflection of Europe’s past. Actions certainly must be taken to prevent future terrorist attacks and preserve the peace and stability of France, but the unity of France against terrorism need not manifest itself in a categorical rejection of thousands of hopeless refugees. Instead, the international community must maintain the moral courage necessary to protect the refugees even with the paralyzing effects of terror.
Despite the similarities between the World War II and today, the refugee crisis is a new crisis characterized by its own power dynamics and political systems. Specifically considering the case of Hungary, while propaganda and indoctrination have been important in fueling public sentiment in support of governmental policies, many Hungarians are very much willing to help refugees. When refugees started to arrive in Hungary, many citizens brought food, water and other resources to the train stations, and thousands of others protested for a “more humane treatment for the newcomers.” The government did not bend. These actions demonstrate, though, that it is largely the national leadership that is preventing action from being taken. To overcome this inertia, the people in individual countries need to use their voice and democratic rights as a political tool to enact change. But as people continue to speak out, the government must recognize the necessity of acknowledging their voice, and listen to the many among them who are willing and eager to help the refugees. It is both inhumane and illegal for Hungary and numerous other nations to continue to sustain policies that severely inhibit the rights of refugees. Moreover, countries such as the United States and Britain, whose actions in the Middle East caused the power vacuum responsible for the current regional chaos, have an obligation to offer substantial support. The West’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has greatly contributed to the escalation and perhaps the very existence of the refugee crisis. These countries therefore have a moral obligation to protect and repatriate the refugees to atone for their actions that have forced this mass displacement.
Amnesty International and leaders speaking on behalf of the EU have also acknowledged the need to confront countries like Hungary, and to exact their obedience to international law. These countries should also be encouraged to act on the basic moral imperative of helping destitute human beings. Additionally, activist groups in solidarity with the refugees should begin social media campaigns and other movements asking citizens across the world to publicly denounce their government’s poor treatment of refugees. To avoid falling prey to that historical impulse highlighted during the Holocaust, aversion to immigration and diversity, citizens need to foster a more democratic relationship between their governments and themselves. Democracy is a powerful tool that can and should be deployed to protect vital human rights. Yet, the international community and Europe in particular seem to ignore its past in a way that is incredibly worrisome both for minorities across the world and the millions of refugees still trying to reach Europe despite the increasing democratization across the world.
The developed nations need to institute a collective response to repatriate the refugees, and citizens need to pressure governments throughout the world to acknowledge accepting refugees as a humanitarian obligation, required by both law and morality. Moreover, this is not an exclusively European problem; the United States and other countries are equally at fault for their failure to coordinate a reasonable response to the ongoing crisis that they had a hand in igniting. As the refugee crisis continues, we all need to constantly remind ourselves and our governments that “never again” should groups of people be excluded based on race, ethnicity, religion or nationality.
Rachel Hirshman is a junior studying political science.