Europe’s Dilemma: Immigration and the Arab Spring

arab-spring-immigrants-europe-islamophobiaMuch of the West voiced great support for the Arab Spring. However, the European Union in particular soon curbed its enthusiastic reaction when residents of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began streaming into Europe after turmoil from the Arab Spring left many MENA civilians unable to remain in the region. Immigration from the Middle East and North Africa to the European Union surged over the past year, causing the leaders of many EU countries to speak out against the growing influx of Arab immigrants seeking refuge within their borders.

European institutions have proposed several solutions, such as using the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) or making a temporary change to the Schengen policy. Neither solution, however, has addressed the problems of discrimination and integration faced by many immigrants of Arab background who have chosen to make a new life for themselves in Europe.

Much of this discrimination falls under the category of Islamophobia, which is a hatred or fear of Muslims or of their beliefs or culture. In the European Union, where Muslims account for nearly 20 million of the union’s 500 million residents, Islamophobia has become more visible in recent years. According to John Feffer, author of Crusade 2.0, “[Islamophobia] in Europe has definitely gotten worse. You can measure it in the electoral success of far-right parties. You can see it in the legislation passed that restricts the dress or religious practices of Muslims.”

European Discrimination

France, for instance, has the largest Muslim population in Europe and has developed perhaps the most restrictive policy toward its Muslim residents. The French far-right party—known as the National Front (FN)—is widely known for its openly anti-Islamic and xenophobic policies. During an interview in December 2010, FN leader Marine Le Pen compared Muslims praying on streets to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Although Le Pen’s party appeals to only one-fifth of the country’s voting public, the party’s rhetoric has infected the mainstream, leading former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to issue derogatory statements aimed at Muslim North African immigrants to drum up political support from right-wing voters. According to the BBC, Sarkozy stated that he would “reduce the number of immigrants to France from 180,000 to 100,000 per year, and introduce tighter controls on access to welfare benefits.”

French policy toward Muslims has also been expressed in the form of the “burqa ban” that places restrictions on Muslim women who choose to “hide their face in the public space,” according to the law’s language. French supporters of the bill, which overwhelmingly passed parliament in 2010, claimed that the veil is incompatible with the country’s strictly secular society and would also liberate Muslim women from being forced to submit to the religious practice. However, as Amnesty International stated in an article from the BBC, “[a] total ban on covering the face would violate the right to freedom of expression.”

Additional hostility toward Muslims was aroused in March, when Mohammad Merah, an extremist, shot three French paratroopers and four Jews before being shot by French forces. Although Merah’s actions might have boosted Islamophobic support for both Le Pen and Sarkozy, it wasn’t enough to beat Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, who won the presidential run-off in early May. Many French residents of North African descent hope that Hollande will push for much-needed immigration reform, eventually making it easier for immigrants to receive their working papers. Hollande himself has remained relatively mum concerning the plight of Arab immigrants seeking shelter in the country from the tumult of the Arab Spring.

The problems of immigration are not limited to France. According to one chart compiled by Transatlantic Trends, a project of the German Marshall Fund, when citizens of several Western countries including France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom were asked in 2011 whether they view immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity, 68 percent of the British citizens surveyed said that they consider immigration to be a growing problem, compared to 58 percent of Spaniards, 53 percent of Americans, 48 percent of Italians, 43 percent of Germans, and 46 percent of French survey participants. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has worked to collect statistics on hate crimes against Muslim residents of the EU. In 2009, FRA research suggested that 1 in 10 of all Muslims surveyed had been a victim of racially motivated assault, threat, or serious harassment at least once in the previous year. More distressing, many Muslims choose not to report crimes to the authorities, leaving these incidents underreported and severely underrepresented in the EU.

Islamophobia has also resulted in violence. In Germany, neo-Nazis murdered nine immigrants of Turkish and Greek heritage, and in Norway, Anders Breivik killed 77 adults and children in protest of the Norwegian Labor Party’s liberal immigration policies.

Migrant Flows

Islamophobia has intensified with the growing influx of Muslims into Europe as a result of the Arab Spring, causing nearly 2 million Arabs to leave their homes for refuge in the West. According to Eurostat, in 2011 there was a 92.5-percent increase of immigrants from Tunisia, 76 percent from Libya, and 50 percent from Syria. This enormous growth has led countries like France to threaten to end participation in the Schengen Zone, which enables citizens of the European Union to travel freely from one member-state to another without the hassle of passports and excessive border restrictions. Under the Dublin II treaty, however, if immigrants are found within the Eurozone without the necessary papers, they will be sent back to the country whose border they first crossed to enter the EU. This policy has caused enormous frustration for the countries of Italy and Greece, as these nations’ borders typically contain the primary entry points for many immigrants seeking a new life in Europe.

In 2011, the European Commission proposed temporary adjustments to the Schengen Zone policy, which would allow Schengen participants to close their borders in exceptional circumstances. This proposal was designed in part to deal with European concerns over the growth in illegal immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. Additionally, to address the massive number of immigrants that end up residing within their borders, Italy and Greece have each resorted to their own desperate measures. Faced with a large number of Tunisians coming across the Mediterranean, for instance, Italian immigration officials provided these immigrants with temporary residency permits and then allowed them to travel farther north even without the proper papers. Greece has taken a very different approach by setting up immigrant detention centers, where the conditions are so awful that the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that they violated the ban on “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.” Given the squalid conditions of the Greek immigrant centers, several nations chose not to send asylum-seekers back to Greece even before the court handed down its ruling.

Europe’s Response to Refugees

Not all migrants can be classified as refugees, according to the UNHCR definition. Migrants move in order to gain a better future for themselves and their families, while refugees are typically forced to move to stay alive. Often, refugees lack the protection of their native government or are otherwise targeted by that government. In these situations, refugees urgently need asylum in another nation.

In the case of the EU and its policy toward refugees, several human rights organizations have cited violations by Frontex, an independent organization that provides border security for the European Union. In 2011, Human Rights Watch called for a branch of Frontex, the Rapid Border Intervention Team—otherwise known as “Rabit”—to be held accountable for its decision to deport 65 asylum seekers to Greek detention centers. Altogether, Frontex has been responsible for rejecting over 6,000 refugees over 2011, forcing these asylum seekers to return to the source of their persecution.

According to an article by Khalid Koser at the Brookings Institution, Turkey has been one of the few nations within the MENA/EU area to practice a more open policy toward asylum seekers, making it the main source of refuge for many MENA residents. In contrast, the EU has become increasingly resistant to large-scale asylum flows as the conflict in the MENA continues, forcing many Syrian refugees to seek relocation in Turkey. Koser estimates that nearly 2 million people have left their homes since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and it is likely that this number will only increase due to the violent, ongoing conflict in Syria.

As the conflict in Syria continues to grow, EU member states should agree to a more cooperative, comprehensive, and mutually supportive program that will allow displaced Syrian civilians to seek refuge within Europe, rather than leaving the bulk of responsibility for the asylum seekers to Greece, Turkey, and Italy.

Stemming Migration from MENA

In 2004, the EU formulated the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) to avoid “the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and our neighbours and instead strengthening the prosperity, stability and security of all.” The more a country complies with the EU’s Action Plan — which mandates adherence to ENP conditions related to the rule of law, mutual accountability, and a shared commitment to the universal values of human rights and democracy — the more willing the EU will be to engage in deeper economic integration with that country.

Thus far, the ENP has been extended to Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Tunisia. However, Syria, Algeria, Belarus, and Libya have not fully accepted the most recent draft of the Action Plan. The policy of the ENP was intended from its creation—before the Arab Spring even occurred—to address the problems existing in many MENA countries. It has since been updated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring to encourage MENA nations to pursue democratic reform, thereby lending greater stability to their situation and ultimately enabling their citizens to remain in their homes.

The ENP has also come under criticism, for instance from the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which argued, “A fundamental problem for the EU [concerning the ENP] remains the partly weak and largely very inconsistent political support from governments, even if the political rhetoric often sounds much more positive.” Concerning additional solutions to address problems existing within the MENA pertaining to the management of irregular migration, Niurka Pineiro of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated in an interview, “There must be a holistic approach that includes labor migration, voluntary return and reintegration, development support from countries of destination to countries of origin so that more opportunities can be created and people are not forced to resort to dangerous journeys in search of employment, amongst others.”

Reform and Resolutions for Refugees

For recently arrived Muslims coming from the Middle East and North Africa, the EU should do much more to tackle the roots of anti-Islamic sentiment. “Multicultural education, affirmative action in hiring, ecumenical dialogue: these are all necessary,” Feffer argues. “Europe has to recognize that Islam and the history of Islam is part of Europe—not something external, not something negative. Ultimately, I think that Europe will need to integrate areas on the periphery that have large Muslim populations.”

However, as Robby Allen of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C warned, “It is very hard to get a political solution,” to solve the dilemmas posed by immigration, especially in relation to the plight of immigrants from the Arab Spring. According to Emilio Alessandri, a Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund, the problems of the Arab Spring and the resulting influx of immigrants and refugees into the EU occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the European Union. Financial problems and economic hardships have resulted in a lack of sufficient funds for integration programs in a variety of European countries, and many politicians who were once more receptive to talks of a more open immigration policy are now more concerned with economic difficulties and the unemployment hardships plaguing their own constituents, making the notion of foreigners coming to the EU for jobs an unfavorable and unsavory idea for many Europeans.

Although the EU’s use of the ENP within the Middle East is an important step toward solving the issues at the root of the problem, other dilemmas remain. The ENP fails to aid or address immigrants already residing within Europe, for whom integration programs are badly needed to allow a smooth acclimation to European life and culture. True, many EU member-states have fewer resources as a result of the economic crisis, but Europe is also facing a need for unskilled labor and an expanded tax base to support its large, aging population. For this reason, expanding the number of worker visas—especially in the areas of unskilled labor—for asylum seekers and other immigrants would be greatly in Europe’s interest. It is time Europe stopped viewing immigrants as a threat to society and instead opened its eyes to the benefits and possibilities available through immigration reform, which could potentially result in advantageous gains for both Europeans and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa.

Anya Barry is a former intern with Foreign Policy in Focus.