The European Migrant Crisis: Impact on Politics and National Identity

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Immigration has always played a large role in history, bringing out the best and the worst in people. In the U.S., which is considered the land of immigrants, the Statue of Liberty serves as a beacon welcoming people seeking a better life. For decades, citizens have tried to help people settle in the U.S. to live the American Dream. At the same time, immigrants have become political scapegoats, blamed for economic problems and terrorist attacks. Recently, immigrants trying to come into the U.S. have been detained at the Mexican border. In Europe, migration has become a major crisis, shaking the foundations of the European Union (EU) and radically transforming the continent's politics. Millions of refugees flooded into Europe during the past decade, pushing migration to the top of the EU’s political agenda and reviving the politics of hate supported by far-right politicians.

War and famine created launched a massive international tragedy five years ago causing many people to flee their homes in the Middle East and North Africa and descend on Europe. More than 5 million Syrians fled to Europe to escape a brutal civil war, starting around 2015, while thousands more came from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq. Many North Africans arrived in Europe, too, trying to escape poverty caused by violence and drought. More than one million people traveled by boat in just 2015, landing most often in Greece and Italy. Thousands of migrants came to Greece each day, with additional thousands landing every week in Italy. Many traveled on to Germany because its leader, Angela Merkel, announced that it would welcome refugees and provide them with help. But the number of migrants skyrocketed. By 2015, 745,000 migrants arrived in Germany, nearly ten times as many as had come in 2012. Europe couldn’t handle so many people, so immigration quickly became a major crisis. The Democratic ideals that were present in European politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, such as free movement between countries, came to an end. Europe had no idea how to deal with the massive influx of immigrants, and the stress often brought out the worst in people.

European countries tried to find solutions to the immigrant crisis. In 2013, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum to try to make sure that migrants didn’t drown when they were traveling across the Mediterranean Sea. It was very successful, with thousands saved by Italian rescue ships in 2014. But as the number of immigrants continued to increase and the operation became more costly, the Italian government decided to end it. A new operation, called Triton, was put into place by the European Union’s border security agency. Its leaders claimed that they wanted to save lives, but thousands of migrants drowned during the operation. Meanwhile, in 2015, the European Union’s leader proposed redistributing 160,000 people who had crossed into Greece and Italy and moving them into other European countries. But many countries, like Hungary, refused to accept anyone.

As Europe continued to search for political solutions, old agreements came into question. The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, freed 26 European countries from border controls, allowing citizens in any of these countries to freely travel to others. But in 2016, some countries implemented border controls because of the migration crisis. Meanwhile, the Dublin Regulation, originally created in 1990, stated that refugees had to seek asylum in the first European Union country they entered. But with so many migrants arriving in Italy and Greece, that agreement started to break down, too, with these countries letting migrants travel on to other places. Additionally, rules outlined at the Refugee Convention in 1951 began to blur, with the distinction between refugees fleeing persecution and migrants escaping poverty becoming blurred. Gone was “the idea that neighboring countries being a continent where neighboring countries can coexist peacefully within political structures that transcend national boundaries,” wrote Eric Posner, University of Chicago Law School professor. An important European ideal was no more. The old ideas set by the convention no longer applied to the world in 2015.

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The migration crisis also transformed politics in Europe, strengthening far-right populism and nationalism. These populists had blamed immigrants for economic problems since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. When so many refugees flooded into Europe 25 years later, they turned immigrants into scapegoats, arguing that they could steal jobs. They also promoted nationalism, an ideology that advocates the interests of a single nation and keeps it pure from other cultures. Nationalism can encourage prejudice and an us versus them mentality. In extreme cases, such as the Nazis, nationalists support violence, justifying killing people to achieve their goals. The entire purpose of the EU was to stop wars between neighboring countries. But if countries became more nationalist, wars became more likely. Europe thought it had gotten rid of this kind of extreme politics, but leaders often worried that it would return. In 2010, the head of the European Union Council called populism “the biggest danger to Europe.” Nationalism and the rise of the far right harmed what the EU set out to do.

Right-wing parties continued to get stronger as the crisis continued. By 2018, these parties were getting as much as 30% of votes in Europe, compared to less than 5% they had received years earlier. These parties gained strength when terrorist attacks began to occur. The 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, where 129 people died, became a key event. Right-wing leaders questioned whether they were letting terrorists into their country when they accepted immigrants. “We don’t think everyone who comes from there is a terrorist, but we don’t know,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said. After the attacks, France called for an immediate halt to all new refugees.

While the Migrant crisis is largely over, political changes continue to occur. The number of refugees in Europe has greatly decreased in the past few years. In 2016, 62,000 immigrants sought asylum in Germany every month, now it is down to 15,000 a month. These numbers are similar to the pre-2014 numbers which were before the immigration crisis began. However, Nationalist parties refuse to stop pushing their anti-immigrant agenda. As Matteo Villa, a migration specialist at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies said “they are creating a crisis of their own in order to score cheap political points”. They are keeping the issue of immigration alive and because of this, the strength of right-wing populists continues to grow in many countries all over Europe.

Right Wing parties have increasingly gained popularity throughout Europe motivated by their hostility towards immigrants. Germany’s biggest opposition party is currently the far right alternative. It entered the federal parliament for the first time in 2017 and earned 12.6% of the vote. This party has strict anti-immigration policies and has a lot of hatred towards Muslims. They created a propaganda campaign about a girl who made up a story about being raped by focusing on Muslim fear. Alexander Gauland, a right-wing party leader, said “I see Islam as a foreign body which will gradually through the birth rate, come to dominate the country”. They are fearful that immigrants will take over Germany, despite the immigrant crisis being largely over. Hungary and Poland are two of the most extreme countries. Hungary built a wall of barbed wire and electric fences in order to keep immigrants out. Anybody who helped migrants could be sent to jail. 69% of the Hungarian population supposed Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in 2018. Poland’s foreign minister said migrants should be organized as an army and sent back to Syria to fight.

Additional countries across Europe have begun to change policies due to right-wing leaders in power. Italy’s right-wing leader Matteo Salvini became the deputy prime minister in 2018. He rose to power after the influx of North African immigrants in 2016 and has since closed off ports to migrant rescue boats. Spain’s Vox party won more than 10% of votes in their election. They promised to deport illegal immigrants and repeal laws against gender violence. There are dramatic changes, given the history of dictator Franco. Only one seat had even been won by the far right until 1975, but now they are gaining popularity. In Switzerland, they banned the construction of minarets, the towers in Muslim mosques used to call people to worship. Possibly one of the most dramatic effects of the European migrant crisis was England trying to leave the EU through the Brexit campaign. Many populist leaders blame the EU for the crisis and propose dissolving it.

Throughout the past decade, the millions of immigrants entering Europe have become a key issue, pushing politics to the far right. The framework of the continent has been called into question, along with many agreements and principles. The refugee crisis leads to the growth of far-right populism. Even today, with the migrant crisis largely over, political changes continue to occur. Individuals’ reactions to the crisis have brought out a larger issue of the intense hatred that has taken place against different nationalities and ethnicities.  

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