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Home Uncategorized A Safe European Home

A Safe European Home

Bryan Fanning

The Outsiders: Refugees in Europe since 1492, by Philipp Ther, Princeton University Press, 304 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0691179520

Many books have been published in recent years on European responses to refugees, ranging from analyses that portray ‘Fortress Europe’ as a manifestation of Eurocentric racism to polemics which claim that Europe is flooded with refugees and existentially endangered by Muslim ones. Douglas Murray’s bestseller The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam (2017) exemplifies this latter camp. The title consciously evokes Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (first published in German in 1918), which portrayed Europe as a civilisation in decay. Murray claims that European culture, derived from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Christianity and the Enlightenment has been levelled as Europeans have lost faith in their beliefs, tradition and legitimacy. The continent, he declares, has become existentially exhausted and has allowed itself to be swept away by immigrants who are “unworthy of European civilization”. From this perspective openness to refugees is presented as a betrayal of Europe, the greatest traitor being Angela Merkel, who in 2015 engineered the reception of more than a million Syrian and other refugees in Germany.

Against this The Outsiders: Refugees in Europe since 1492 by Phillipp Ther (2019) argues that refugees have been integral to European history and culture for centuries. Ther’s sober examination of this history, which first appeared in German, examines centuries of European responses to refugees who were mostly European as well as those who became European. It constitutes a measured corrective to the narrow conception of European identity that Murray, a neo-conservative supporter of Brexit, shares with other anti-immigrant far-right Europeans.

The Outsiders charts the causes and influences of five hundred years of refugee migration within and into Europe. The geography of Europe examined by Ther stretches from the Atlantic ocean to the Urals, the Bosporus and the Aegean. Before the First World War this area included a portion of the Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of years earlier territories north of the Straits of Gibraltar were also inhabited by Muslims. The reconquista in Spain saw an entire country purged of Jewish and Muslim minorities. At the end of the fifteenth century thousands of Spanish Muslims fled to Morocco to avoid forced religious conversion or settled in the coastal region around Valencia where less severe laws were for a time in force. During the sixteenth century Emperor Charles V imposed compulsory Christian baptism upon every region in Spain. Little is known of the fate of these refugees though it is believed that most settled in what are today Morocco and Algeria. Spanish Sephardic Jews were also targeted by religious discrimination, forced conversion and the Inquisition. Some of these were driven to parts of the Ottoman Empire, including Sarajevo, Istanbul and North Africa, where they enjoyed the religious freedom denied to them in Spain. Others fled to the South of France, to Amsterdam, to Hamburg, Genoa and Venice.

The subsequent Habsburg reconquista in southeastern Europe expelled large numbers of European Muslims, including those Hungarians who had converted to Islam during the one hundred and fifty year or so period of Ottoman rule. Following a successful uprising in 1821 against Ottoman rule Muslims were similarly expelled from Greece. They were also driven out of other parts of the Balkans. Istanbul gave sanctuary to some 200,000 southeastern European Muslim refugees in the period 1877-88 alone. During the long nineteenth century (between the French Revolution in 1789 and the beginning of the First World War in 1914) the Ottoman empire absorbed some four million refugees and migrants from southeastern Europe.

Europe had to deal with millions of refugees after the First World War and millions more fled within and from Europe after the Second. Between 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall refugees fled Eastern European countries that by the early twenty-first century were part of the EU. West Germany admitted some 12 million of these. Between 1945 and 1947 some 300,000 ethnic Italians fled Yugoslavia.

The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which obliged European countries to admit refugees from elsewhere, was designed to deal with the problems of millions of displaced Europeans in the aftermath of the Second World War. The convention initially applied only to Europe but was expanded to deal with those who fled Tunisia and Morocco after those countries won independence from France. French, British and Dutch colonialism resulted in the migration of the non-European subjects and citizens of these European countries. Some of these became refugees. The Asians who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda during the 1970s were descended from people who had been planted there by British colonial administrators.

After the fall of the Soviet Union Yugoslavia fractured into several new states and about two million people were displaced. Ther recounts how many Croats and Serbs had friends and relatives in Austria, Germany, and other EU states who had migrated there during the 1960s and 1970s as guest workers. Many also received assistance from NGOs, churches and government organisations in such countries. Some 700,000 were admitted, according to Ther, “with relatively little red tape and hardly any controversy”.

However, Germany, facing economic difficulties and dislocations following reunification, introduced new legislation that stipulated that refugees could be turned away if these had arrived via a secure third country. It also, unlike Austria and Sweden, imposed barriers to refugees obtaining employment. The German position under Chancellor Kohl was that the Yugoslavian refugees could only be admitted temporarily. European Union countries sought alternatives to accepting large numbers of refugees from former Yugoslavia. Supplies were airlifted to Sarajevo, as to Berlin in 1948, during a siege that lasted more than three years. So-called “safe haven” security zones were established by the UN in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, UN peacekeepers stood by during the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica.

In 1990 Germany initiated what came to be called the Dublin Convention ‑ an agreement between European Community member states that stipulated that responsibility for asylum seekers fell upon the state where the applicant first entered the Community. Additionally, the twelve initial signatory countries agreed to share data to avoid multiple asylum applications. Under the Dublin Convention much of the burden of dealing with new waves of refugees fell upon countries whose borders constituted the edge of the EU. Once the EU expanded Germany acquired a cordon sanitaire that made it almost impossible for refugees to enter the country legally and to apply for asylum there. As Ther writes: “In hindsight one has to ask why Italy, Greece and Spain let themselves be drawn into the Dublin Convention without simultaneously insisting on some provision for directing refugees in cases of acute overload.” However, at the time the numbers applying from countries to the south of Europe were small compared with those from the east.

The 1995 Schengen Agreement, which reduced internal border controls within the EU, made it possible for refugees who had arrived in frontier countries like Italy to subsequently travel onwards. From the later 1990s many of those who claimed asylum in Ireland did so having first travelled through other EU countries. EU member states never managed to agree on a system to manage the internal distribution and resettlement of refugees. Nor have they managed to harmonise asylum laws and procedures. What came to be called Fortress Europe was marked by a zero-sum mentality whereby member states worried that their asylum policies were more generous and therefore attractive to refugees than those of other member states. A race to the bottom occurred, with the introduction of harsher policies, such as direct provision in the Irish case. Again in the Irish case, a cynically high turndown rate of applications for refugee status could be justified on the basis that applicants were in breach of the Dublin Convention.

Ther argues that the “great exodus” of more than a million Syrians who made their own way to Europe in the autumn of 2015 was “entirely predictable” and was brought about to a considerable extent by the failure of EU countries to provide earlier support for these people. During the spring and summer of 2015 the UN warned that food rations in the refugee camps would soon have to be cut due to lack of funding. Several times the UN pleaded with the international community for more funding but sufficient resources were not provided. For decades countries that had ratified the 1951 Convention admitted “programme refugees” whose cases had been processed in UN-run refugee camps but only a tiny percentage of Syrians were admitted by such means.

In September 2015, faced with up to ten thousand refugees a day attempting to cross into Austria, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, agreed not to close their borders. Turning away refugees would have meant stranding more than 200,000 people who by then were already en route through Austria, Hungary and southeastern Europe. Attempting to do so would have triggered a chain of border closings and resulted in enormous chaos. Merkel was also worried about the potential destabilisation of debt-ridden Greece and the Balkans, through which the refugees were travelling. Closing the borders, Ther writes, would have been particularly difficult in any case since these had already been effectively dismantled owing to implementation of free movement within Europe.

Merkel and Faymann admitted more than a million refugees. Ther emphasises that the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis was far less challenging than the problem of dealing with some 30 million displaced people in the aftermath of the Second World War. He also observes that the number of Syrians who arrived into the entire European Union was considerably smaller than the total who found shelter in the Lebanon and Jordan. In the “fragile” EU, the refugee problem mostly consisted of internal conflicts over refugee and migration policy rather than whether a rich community of states with more than 500 million inhabitants could support those who were admitted.

Ther is somewhat critical of Merkel’s failure to secure a political consensus but he also emphasises how the German host population rose to meet the challenges. Her decision had not been agreed with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party in her governing coalition, the Christian Social Union. Nor had she consulted other European heads of government except for the Austrian chancellor. However, her upbeat slogan Wir schaffen das (We can handle this) proved more prophetic than glib: “After some initial difficulties, the authorities managed to cope with the challenge. No one had to sleep on the street as they had on their escape routes through Anatolia and southeastern Europe, and there were no outbreaks of famine or epidemics. This was no small feat.” Some fifteen million volunteers across Germany answered their governments plea for a Willkommenskultur (a culture of welcoming) and participated in refugee relief efforts.

By contrast, the far-right Hungarian president Victor Orbán closed Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Slovenia. The Visegrád states, led by Hungary, pursued a policy of hard-line opposition to admitting refugees. Ther’s analysis contrasts this response with the welcome once extended to Hungarian refugees. Almost 180,000 Hungarians fled to Austria between late 1956 and February 1957. Austria coped well with these. It already had a system of refugee camps left over from the postwar period which had processed more than one million German-speaking refugees displaced from Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Ther also describes how a camp used to accommodate Hungarians at Traikirchen was subsequently used to shelter some of the 250,000 Jews that fled the Soviet Union via Austria and then resettled in Israel, the United States and in other Western countries. In 2015 Traiskirchen was used to accommodate refugees from the Middle East.

Elsewhere he compares the movement of Syrian refugees who travelled via Turkey and the Balkans with those who journeyed along the same routes but in the other direction after the Balkans wars of 1912 and 1913. What came to be called the Armenian genocide included the expulsion from 1915 by the Young Turks of Armenians from the Anatolian highlands into the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands died. Aleppo in Syria became home to the largest community of descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide in the Middle East. Ther incidentally notes that “little Armenia” has taken in the third highest proportion of Syrian refugees after Lebanon and Jordan.

Philipp Ther’s study engages, for the most part, in a big picture analysis that compares refugee movements and responses to these across time. He subjects European responses to refugees to an Olympian gaze which deflates present-day claims made by politicians and anti-immigration polemicists that Europe is in the midst of an unprecedented refugee crisis. Twentieth century Europe witnessed far greater upheavals. Refugees, he argues, have always been part of the European story and Europe has generally coped with and benefited greatly from the arrival of large numbers of initially unwanted migrants.

He draws on case studies that examine the experiences of Huguenots and more recently displaced groups. He also reflects upon the hypocrisies and dysfunctions of present-day refugee polices. He explains in detail how the Dublin Convention turned some EU member states into a kind of cordon sanitaire that permitted other EU countries to shirk responsibility for admitting refugees. The big EU idea more recently has been to outsource the problem by paying countries outside the EU to warehouse refugees who would otherwise attempt in large numbers the kinds of journeys made by Syrians and others in 2015. In 2018 the twenty members of the EU willing to accept refugees announced that they were willing to take in just 50,000 refugees a year for resettlement. Ther observes that in previous years only a small percentage of such pledges were actually honoured by such European countries. He also cites estimates that refugees have less than a one per cent chance of being resettled in Europe if they play by the rules.

The Outsiders examines the interplay between humanitarian and utilitarian arguments for the acceptance of refugees, noting that humanitarianism is often in short supply or insufficiently influential given the political influence of right-wing nationalism in many European counties. Towards the end of the book he grapples with one of the big questions in the politics of immigration: why are countries that are open to labour migration often so opposed to admitting refugees? Part of the problem, he implies, it that prevailing stereotypes depict refugees as vulnerable, with the implication that these will be a burden upon a host society – though in fact refugees are often very resourceful.

Huguenots from France were the first to call themselves refugees. The term entered the English language from the French réfugié during the 1680s to refer to Protestants who fled from mostly Catholic France to escape persecution. Ther includes as one of his case studies the experiences of the Robillard de Champagne family, some of whom settled in Ireland. However, Ther’s history of refugees makes no mention Ireland. Given that just a minuscule proportion of the millions of refugees who moved within or to Europe were ever admitted here this is understandable. Yet, many of the waves of refugees examined by Ther included people who ended up in Ireland. These have included some Jewish refugees, Hungarians and, most recently, Syrians.

Marie de La Rochefoucauld died in Portarlington, where she had moved in 1722 to live with her eldest son, Josias de Champagné, having in 1687 travelled from France to Holland via England. Most Huguenots, including her family, found refuge in Holland. Many, including her husband, enlisted in the army of William of Orange which embarked for Ireland in 1688. When he died in Belfast from an illness, his son Josias received a commission as an ensign in William’s army. Josias fought in the Battle of the Boyne and subsequently settled with other retired Huguenot soldiers in Portarlington, which became a French-speaking town. Huguenots also established a linen industry in Lisburn and settled in many other parts of Ireland. Such self-sufficient migrants hardly fit the stereotypes of refugees as vulnerable and dependent.

Nor are many Syrians refugees and other forced migrants well served by such typecasting. Ther estimates that more than a million of these spent an average of €7,000 each to reach Europe and that half of all Syrians with a university degree now live in the EU. He gives examples of how earlier waves of intrepid refugees went on to make significant economic contributions to Germany and other countries that took them in. Such accomplishments, he argues, stand in conspicuous contrast to how refugees are depicted by NGOs and international organisations in their appeals for donations as almost exclusively weak and needy.

The responses to refugees that appear to work best ‑ and the only ones that can ever work for large numbers ‑ are those that promote self-reliance. Efforts to regulate the lives of refugees by treating them as patients or inmates of institutions or camps tend to fail badly. In the Irish case the presence of a relatively small number of asylum seekers has come to be portrayed as a national crisis by both opponents of immigration and champions of migrant rights who argue that the system designed to control and regulate the lives of asylum seekers is both cruel and inefficient. Clearly refugees need supports within host societies but in the Irish case these have been cancelled out by restrictions on the right to work and policies of deliberately segregating those seeking asylum from the host population and other migrants. The result has been a system that is perceived to impose a burden on host communities where direct provision centres are located. Kneejerk political mobilisation against these stands in contrast with the general absence of opposition there has been to the arrival of far greater numbers of ordinary migrants who have come to be folded into the same communities with relatively little controversy. Ireland has sheltered behind the Dublin Convention and has admitted tiny numbers of refugees compared to many other EU countries. The Irish navy has participated in efforts to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. However, it set ashore in Sicily those it saved from sinking boats with no expectation that they might find safe harbour in an Irish port.


Bryan Fanning is the author of Migration and the Making of Ireland. He is professor of Migration and Social Policy at University College Dublin.



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