The debate in Europe and the United States has been hijacked by a simple and false amalgam that Syrian refugees are the same type of people that have bombed a Russian airliner and killed over 120 civilians in the streets of Paris. Such amalgam is resonating among the citizens of the Euro-Atlantic nations and is affecting societal unity as well as serious policy-making.
American and European Discourses
In the United States, the political debate for constructive policy-making and governance is on hold until the November 2016 Presidential elections. So far, the political debate has been framed by the large pool of Republican presidential hopefuls seeking for attention and party nomination. Because of the two-step process of American elections, candidates ought to win their party
primaries in order to face the opposition in the second round. Historically, this part of the race is the most extreme and radical as each candidate (from the Republican or Democrat) wants to win the nomination from their party base. In recent decades, the base for the Democrats and Republicans has become more extreme. For such reason Republican hopefuls are tapping in the most radical rhetorics in order to get the nomination. This leads ultimately to ultra-nationalist and anti-immigration narratives highly embedded in ideologies and leaving facts on the side. The current leader of the Republican field, Donald Trump, has been quite tough on wanting to stop immigrants from coming into the US and even rejecting illegal immigrants currently living in the country. But the debate in the US has become even more radical ensuing the terrorist attacks in Paris. Now Governors of the states of Florida and Georgia have both claimed that they will be refusing to welcome any Syrian refugees. First of all, immigration in the US is a federal matter, so that would go against federal policies. Second, the process to get asylum in the US is extremely difficult, long and thorough.
Interestingly enough, Marco Rubio, Senator for the state of Florida, is even forgetting about his own history by taking a tough stand against refugees. His family flew the Cuban dictatorship as many Cubans did since the 60s. For political and historical reasons, the Cubans are among the very few to receive automatic citizenship. Cubans were fleeing a violent dictatorship persecuting individuals opposed to the regime; so are a majority of Syrians. If the 60s and 70s were one of the most tense moment between Communist regimes and Capitalist regimes, the fear was about protection of intelligence and the US responded through the implementation of virulent anti-communist policies starting with McCarthy. Today, the fear from the Syrians is not so much about intelligence gathering and spying, but rather about terrorism. In both cases, the American public has been extremely fearful of welcoming refugees from highly unstable places. Individuals like Marco Rubio taking a selecting reading of personal and national history and migration are affecting the sanctity of an important debate on proper refugee policies.
As illustrated by the recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans (51%) approves the US decision to take more refugees. Within this 51%, the wide majority of Americans in favor of such policy move belongs to the Democratic Party (69%), when only less than 1/3 of Republican supporters approve it. When asked about the US on doing more, only 44% of citizens agree with such statement. If Democrats were predominantly in favor to welcome refugees (69%), only 50% of them are in favor on doing more and 35% rather stay with the current course of action. Ultimately, the current debate taking place in each party reflects very well the results of such poll. In the case of the Republicans, the main argument is to limit the number of refugees, while in the case of the Democrats it is to maintain the current status-quo. Neither parties offer a true solution on welcoming Syrian refugees.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the populist and xenophobist parties of the extreme right are getting some serious leverage. Not only they are getting into power like in Poland, Denmark and Sweden, but other extreme right parties like in France are continuing their progressive ascension. The European rights are shifting towards the extreme of their spectrum in order to seek for a confused electorates. In the case of France, despite the ongoing investigations, the rights are splitting from the government and are fighting over a ‘frighten’ and ‘powerless’ electorate. In his many speeches and addresses, President François Hollande has called for national unity and solidarity. But the rights are rejecting such unity. For instance, during the address of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls before the National Assembly, the rights booed and refused to join the current government in maintaining the national unity. The Republicans (center-right) and Front National (extreme-right) shall be called for what they are in this moment of grief, tension and uncertainty (considering the fact that the police and intelligence services are still looking
for terrorists and working on dismantling terrorist cells around the country): vultures. In addition, if one were to actually read and listen to the narratives of Prime Minister Valls, one would get confused about his political affiliation. The securitarian rhetorics of the current socialist government is identical to the ones used by the French rights. In a recent interview with international medias, PM Valls expressed through very tough language radical policies in order to curb the threat of terrorism (read here an article in the Financial Times). In addition, the PM and President have not shied away from repeating that ‘France is now at war’ and more attacks should be expected.
Politically, France is highly divided, much more than after the terrorist attacks in January, while socially, French citizens are in fact seeking and searching for some sort of unity and solidarity. Interestingly enough, the world has offered the unity and solidarity to French citizens more than its own political class. The demonstrations of support in the US and the UK (both on the right of the political spectrum and in opposition to economic and social policies of the Hollande’s government) have been quite humbling.
The Quest for Transatlantic Sanity and Maturity
The threat of terrorism and its recent successes in Paris, Egypt, Beirut, Tunis (to name a few) is causing Westerners and others to reflect on a simple question: what does the future entail? How do we, as a society, avoid for a radicalization of our youth? and how do we secure our nations without violating our own democratic principles and values? The US waged two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for over a decade, violated its democratic principles (through the Patriot Act, rendition and the use of torture). Now the French are at war and are passing laws in order to extend the state of emergency as well as a deprivation of nationality for bi-nationals. A French Patriot Act was already in the making ensuing the attacks against Charlie Hebdo 10 months earlier.
With regards to the refugees leaving their homelands in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and others, Europeans cannot find a common position on welcoming them and relocating them across the Union. Member States rather locked them down by closing their borders and ultimately slowly killing one of the greatest successes of the EU, the Schengen agreement (read here a previous analysis on the issue). Europeans live in the absolutely fantasy that closing and re-instituting national borders will ultimately stop the flow of migrants. In the 19th century and early 20th, an ocean and closed American borders did not stop Italian and Irish migrants to seek for an opportunity in the United States. So it is quite futile to forget about history and geographical realities.
The obvious policy response from, supposedly developed countries, should be to assume their responsibilities by welcoming refugees and letting their legal mechanisms grant asylum to the few of them. The question of the Schengen agreement should be properly addressed instead of being criticized for political reasons. The concept of Schengen, a borderless continent, is fascinating but cannot work without its members boosting up their cooperation between their police and intelligence services. Free movement of people should be guaranteed, but that does not mean that it should be a lawless continent. Criminal and terrorist networks ought to be controlled through deeper European cooperative mechanisms requiring more funding, more human and material capabilities, and naturally political will.
The two complex crises of migration and terrorism have illustrated a core reality. Our ‘leaders’ need to do more ‘leading’ and less following. Governing is a complex matter that requires vision, leadership and courage. Until our elected officials seek for perpetual reelection by only worrying of grabbing an endlessly shifting confused electorate, these complex crises will linger.