Yesterday, in response to a flyer circulated in Arabic amongst the 12,000 people stranded in the Idomeni camp on the Greek/Macedonian border, hundreds of refugees attempted to storm the border fence erected on the Macedonian border. They were pushed back by tear gas and rubber bullets. According to Doctors without Borders, more than 260 were injured in the action, including children (tagesschau.de). RUPTLY is an online alternative to press agencies like the AP or DPA and provides raw footage through social media in real time. They’ve posted this link to footage of the protest on Twitter and have a 3 minute video up on YouTube including an interview with refugees in English. The man interviewed states: “But the problem is, that we cannot control 10,000 people. We are the same, we are refugees like them. We hope there is a solution for that.”
What is the solution to being a refugee? Effective and efficient resettlement. But Europe’s border closures have made the movement towards resettlement increasingly difficult.
The New York Times also covered the story and has video footage posted. Their article, however, provides a different slant than in the German articles on tagesschau.de or Spiegel Online. The NYTimes emphasizes the role of the Golden Dawn, a Greek nationalist party, in the protests:
“The clashes in Idomeni, which follow several confrontations there in the last month, came as members of the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn have begun marching in several areas around Greece where migrants are camped or massed at informal gathering points.
The group, whose main leaders were arrested in 2013 on charges of leading a criminal organization, had been largely silent since the migrant crisis took hold. Yet in recent days its leaders, who had since been released from custody, said the party was planning numerous protests around the country against what they warn is the “Islamization of Greece” by Muslim asylum seekers coming mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.”
I don’t know enough about Greece to know if this refugee protest is the direct result of nationalist organizing or if that connection is merely a false correlation. The NYTimes article doesn’t make that connection clear. The real issue is that people are being denied the right to claim asylum in the place they desire, whether or not Dublin Regulations are the law of the land.
The push to the right is also the focus of German commentator Oliver Trenkamp, who published an article late last night on SpiegelOnline which criticized statements by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland (AfD) made about the protest:
“Desperate parents, crying children, tear gas cartridges fired by soldiers in the middle of Europe near the border fence of Idomeni: politicians like Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland have tried to harden us against the impulse to scream and cry in fury at such pictures. ‘We have to tolerate hard images,’ the Interior Minister says. ‘We can’t let ourselves be extorted by [pictures of] puppydog eyes,’ the Vice-Chairman of the AfD.
They want to turn off our empathy or at least temper it. Bernd Ulrich from Die Zeit calls (the politics Puppydog-Eyes-Gauland and Order-to-Shoot Petry have been waging for months) a ‘campaign of political coarsening.’ And after almost a year of debates about refugees, after the closure of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey deal taking effect, you have to agree: they have at least partially succeeded in sharpening the tone of the refugee debates, and pushing the discourse to the right.”
The consequences of this coarsening are not just numbing our capacity for empathy or the success of right-wing parties. The aftermath of the EU/Turkey Deal and the closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia presents multiple opportunities for radicalization. The right-wing nationalist parties of Europe have been successful, as we saw in the recent German provincial elections, at gathering popular support and political power. According to the NYTimes, this is also happening in Greece partly due to the release of Golden Dawn organizers from custody. But what isn’t quite being formulated so bluntly in the media is that a different kind of radicalism has great potential to develop among those refugees being prevented from reaching the locations from which they hope to claim asylum.
The real consequence of a lack of empathy? Potentially more terrorism on European soil. Violence is a product of hopelessness. What we’re observing is the systematic dismantling of hope in places like Idomeni and Piraeus, where thousands of people are trapped and suffering. Trenkamp ends his article with a call to empathy, and the hope that Germany will take on more refugees from Idomeni. What gives him hope, he says, is that many portions of German society have not yet heeded the call to coarsen their politics:
“Doctors and nurses are still working voluntarily in reception centers; teachers, instructors, and students are collecting donations; lawyers are helping with asylum applications; church groups, roommates, and families are taking Syrians in; students are bringing refugees in car trunks into the country [Germany]; activists are marrying foreigners to make permanent residency possible. Many Germans are further along in their minds and their hearts than elected officials and those who fill newspaper columns.”
It is heartening that there are so many individual acts of resistance. But there are limits to the effects individual acts of resistance can have. Intelligent policy choices can reach many more people and do so much faster than uncoordinated individuals. Yet, the response from the top seems to be to turn a deaf ear to the ways politicians’ own policies threaten their eventual undoing. The hopelessness that policies like detention and deportation have caused can lead directly to the radicalization of refugees, especially those held in detention or deported to large-scale camps without a path towards citizenship and work. A hopeless generation will merely add to the political destabilization of Europe and the Middle East – hardening refugees and producing images even harder for the EU to tolerate.