The price of European indifference

BAGHDAD • Europe's migration debate has taken a disturbing turn.

It began with the creation of the catch-all concept (a legal freak) of a "migrant", which obscures the difference, central to the law, between economic and political migration, between people escaping poverty and those driven from their homes by war.

Unlike economic migrants, those fleeing oppression, terror and massacre have an inalienable right to asylum, which entails an unconditional obligation by the international community to provide shelter.

Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek island Lesbos in an inflatable boat from Turkey last month.
Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek island Lesbos in an inflatable boat from Turkey last month. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Even when the distinction is acknowledged, it is often as part of another sleight of hand, an attempt to convince credulous minds that the men, women and children who paid thousands of dollars to travel on one of the rickety boats washing up on the islands of Lampedusa or Kos are economic migrants.

But the reality is that 80 per cent of these people are refugees, trying to escape despotism, terror and religious extremism in countries like Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. That is why international law requires that the cases of asylum seekers are examined not in bulk, but one by one.

And even when that is accepted, when the sheer number of people clamouring to get to Europe's shores makes it all but impossible to deny the barbarity driving them to flee, a third smokescreen goes up. Some, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claim the conflicts generating these refugees rage only in Arab states that are being bombed by the West.

Here again, the figures do not lie. The top source of refugees is Syria, where the world community has refused to conduct the kinds of military operations required by the "responsibility to protect" - even though international law demands intervention when a mad despot, having killed 240,000 of his people, undertakes to empty his country. The West is also not bombing Eritrea, another major source of refugees.

Yet another damaging myth, perpetuated by images of refugees rushing through border fences or trying to climb onto trains in Calais, is that "Fortress Europe" is under assault by waves of barbarians. This is wrong on two levels.

First, Europe is far from being the migrants' primary destination. Nearly two million refugees from Syria alone have headed to Turkey, and one million have fled to Lebanon, whose population is just 3.5 million. Jordan, with a population of 6.5 million, has taken in nearly 700,000. Meanwhile, Europe, in a display of united selfishness, has scuttled a plan to relocate a mere 40,000 asylum seekers from their cities of refuge in Italy and Greece.

Second, the minority who do choose Germany, France, Britain, Scandinavia or Hungary are not enemies out to destroy or even to sponge off European taxpayers. They are applicants for freedom, lovers of our promised land, our social model and our values. They are people who cry out "Europe! Europe!" the way millions of Europeans, arriving a century ago on Ellis Island, learnt to sing America The Beautiful.

Then there is the ugly rumour that this imaginary assault has been clandestinely orchestrated by the strategists of a "great replacement", with foreigners supplanting native Europeans or, worse, by agents of a global jihad, in which today's migrants are tomorrow's terrorists on bullet trains. It should go without saying that this is nonsense.

Taken together, these distortions and delusions have had serious consequences. For starters, the Mediterranean Sea has been all but abandoned to human smugglers. The Mare Nostrum is gradually becoming the kind of vast and watery mass grave described by a faraway poet. Some 2,350 people have drowned already this year.

But, for most Europeans, these people are little more than statistics, just as the women and men who have survived the journey remain unidentified and indistinguishable, a threatening anonymous mass. Our society of the spectacle, normally so quick to manufacture an instant celebrity to serve as the "face" of the crisis du jour (anything from swine flu to a truckers' strike), has not taken an interest in the fate of a single one of the "migrants".

These individuals - whose course to Europe resembles that of the Phoenician Princess Europa, who arrived from Tyre on Zeus' back several millennia ago - are being wholly rejected; indeed, walls are being built to keep them out. The result is another group of people being denied basic rights. Such people, as political theorist Hannah Arendt once said, will ultimately come to see in the commission of a crime their only path into the world of law and of those who enjoy the rights the law confers.

Europe, harassed by its xenophobes and consumed by self-doubt, has turned its back on its values. Indeed, it has forgotten what it is. The bell tolls not only for the migrants, but also for a Europe whose humanistic patrimony is crumbling before our very eyes.


• Bernard-Henri Levy is a founder of the Nouveaux Philosophes (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left In Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'The price of European indifference'. Print Edition | Subscribe