Here is something not particularly crazy to say: nationalism and right-wing populism are currently sweeping Western Europe and the United States, and these phenomena have clear roots in racial fear. This is not to say deindustrialization, the globalization of labor, austerity, and economic anxiety deserve no attention. It all does. However, these populist movements are proving surprisingly robust even in very wealthy European countries with Bernie Sanders-dream-style social programs. Social scientists are at a loss to explain this sudden worldwide nationalist surge, but there is one singular event that seems to have been increasingly decisive in radicalizing the citizens of multiple, disparate democracies.
The refugee crisis began in 2014 when roughly 200,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, which seemed like madness compared to the 40,000 who came the year before. Then, in 2015, more than a million people flooded into Europe, mostly fleeing the Syrian Civil War but also escaping the war-weary countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. For Europeans, this crisis is immediate and visceral. This past week I spoke to a good friend of mine, the writer Delaney Nolan, who recently spent time volunteering at a refugee camp in Elpida, Greece where an abandoned factory houses refugees while they wait to hear about their chances for asylum in the interior of the European continent.
Greece is a very particular situation, where the new leftist government was forced to accept a bundle of EU-imposed austerity measures. “Now there’s massive unemployment, slashed welfare and pensions, and meanwhile the government is giving assistance and housing to refugees while there are homeless Greeks in the street,” said Nolan. “None of it is easy or simple. But if you’re a middle-aged Greek guy, the breadwinner for the family, and you’ve lost your job, and your pension got cut in half, and no one’s going to hire an old guy, and your kids can’t get jobs because the youth unemployment rate is 70 percent, and you see refugees getting cash assistance from the state—it feels bad. Suicide rates here have soared.”
A rash of terrorist attacks from France to Germany to Turkey have not helped matters. Though plenty of the migrants are escaping poverty in countries like Albania and Kosovo or violence in Nigeria and Eritrea, the primary faith of the refugee is Islamic and the face is non-Caucasian. The Islamaphobic backlash has been severe. Last month, members of Greece’s right-wing movement Golden Dawn threw Molotov cocktails into a camp in Chios and attacked refugees while police stood by doing nothing.
“When you hear politicians talking about the refugees and Muslims like they are all terrorists and criminals, it jars with reality,” Nolan told me. “Here is what refugees are doing: sewing curtains, making really tasty eggplant, wearing crocs—bizarrely popular, not sure why—checking Facebook, staying in bed all day because they are too depressed to get up, taking English and German lessons, checking out drills to adjust cribs for their babies, playing football, getting in stupid arguments because they are stressed out and sad all the time, trying not to cry when they talk about home. One guy, an engineer who is always really well-dressed and spruce even in this nutty place, presented a whole blueprint plan for a revamped water system that would make Elpida more efficient.”
Yet that gap between the rhetoric of fear and the reality of a father trying to make the best of a bad situation to improve a camp’s water system grows ever wider. Even in social democratic countries like Sweden and Norway, a harsh crackdown on immigration has begun. This is not entirely surprising. In 2015, 163,000 refugees entered Sweden, a country with a population of 10 million. This is the equivalent of 5 million people entering the United States in a single year. The anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, saw a surge in popularity, which has leached into growing support for neo-Nazi and fascist groups. A robust social welfare state has in no way curbed the backlash and has perhaps even exacerbated resentment. To put it simply, austerity policies cannot shoulder all of the blame.
It’s hard to overestimate the psychic consequences of the migrant crisis—not just in Europe but in the United States. In the reality show onslaught that was the 2016 U.S. election, the effect of the migrant crisis has slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. Keep in mind, though, that back in the early days of the Republican primary, the issue became so hot a button, it was searing the fingerprints off of staid presidential frontrunners. Asked about the U.S. accepting Syrian refugees, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said at a campaign stop, “at a minimum we ought to be bringing in people that have—orphans or people that clearly aren’t going to be terrorists. Or Christians. There are no Christian terrorists in the Middle East.”
When pressed by a reporter about how one might go about screening for Christianity, Bush said, “I mean, you can prove you’re a Christian.”
It was one of the dumbest, cruelest things said by presidential candidate during that campaign—Haha! Of course I’m just kidding. Bush’s “Christianity test” quickly slipped into obscurity as half of all U.S. governors sought out any camera they could find to declare that their states would not accept any refugees. Then, in December of 2015, the eventual Republican winner, Donald Trump, called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
It was an outrageous statement, as radical and shocking and contrary to the supposed values of our democracy as anything proposed since the days of Jim Crow or Joseph McCarthy. And it worked. The man became president.
So when we talk about the knock-on effects of the refugee crisis, we must include the current global swing towards racial fear-mongering, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. Historically, sudden migration, no matter which group “invades” another group’s territory, almost always produces resentment, fear, and violence. Humanity, it turns out, has not budged too far past its basest tribal instincts, and these instincts are still easily enflamed and exploited by those seeking elected power.
This is bad news because as a world community, especially in the Global North, we are going to have to get much better at dealing with refugee flows very quickly.
When looking at the underlying causes of the refugee crisis, one can easily point a finger at U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the second and third countries from which the most people have fled. However, in Syria and across the Arab Spring states, from Libya to Egypt to Yemen, there is a clear culprit that is exacerbating the human misery driving people from these destabilized places.
Beginning in the winter of 2006-2007, the water table in Syria’s agricultural areas began to plummet. Exacerbated by corrupt government policies, the water situation never recovered, and over a million people poured into the cities looking for opportunities. They became the kindling for the uprising, then the war currently underway. The Middle East is particularly susceptible to rising greenhouse gas emissions, which are further drying out an already arid region. According to NASA, the drought in the Eastern Mediterranean is the worst in 900 years.
Complex situations that demand complex responses tend to receive lip service answers from politicians, who attempt to cram difficult ideas into ready-made, pre-conceived narratives. The right sees these events as the rise of radical Islam, a clash of civilizations between the enlightened West and the barbarians at our gates. For the left, it is a humanitarian catastrophe wrought by bad luck and perhaps failed U.S. policy.
But what if the underlying causal circumstances are much more difficult to comprehend and respond to? When it comes to water, Syria is a microcosm of what is happening globally. As a resource becomes scarcer, elites attempt to horde that resource and the wealth it produces for themselves. Corruption ensues and disaster follows as inequitable distribution foments outrage, resistance, revolution, chaos, and the kinds of fanatical movements like ISIS which see indiscriminate murder and brutality as the most effective methods to maintain control.
In 2012 Christian Parenti wrote a highly under-read book called Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, in which he explores the post-colonial states in the mid-latitude regions spanning Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These states will bear the brunt of an overheating planet and will act as canaries in the coal mine as they starve of water. Political responses will all be inadequate, Parenti argues, states will collapse, and the only effective governing bodies in the short term will be brutal gangs of religious thugs or Western military occupations. Refugees will attempt to escape to wealthy regions of the world where the worst effects of climate change are still being patched over and ignored by each state’s taxpayers. Four years later, it couldn’t really be a more prescient read.
Therefore, the current refugee crisis over which so much ink has been spilled, so many airwaves occupied, and so many votes collected, is just the beginning. Over the course of the 21st Century sea levels are going to rise and inundate the areas where most of the world’s population resides. Arid regions will dry out further. Climatological disasters like hurricanes and typhoons will level major population centers. According to the best science, most of this was pretty well baked into the cake before a new, unexpected fossil fuel kakistocracy rose to power in Washington. As the Trump administration accelerates carbon-intensive policies, opportunities to alleviate the climatological phenomenon that will cause future refugee crises will vanish.
The global community must gird itself for unprecedented movements of people. New frameworks must be developed to resettle and integrate refugees into their new homes, and to do so in such a way that the burden falls equitably across developed nations. Where it can, the xenophobic response to these new migrants should be tempered both by voters and civic institutions. It’s unlikely human beings of any nation will inoculate themselves to the fear of the Other any time soon, but those of us who are capable of speaking up in whatever small way we can must advocate for humane and compassionate policy. This is especially important in instances when one idiot commits an act of violence or terrorism that threatens to fall on the heads of thousands of other individuals just trying to live their lives.
Mass refugee crises will be driven by underlying material factors, but our response to these migrations will not be dictated by hard parameters like parts per million of carbon or the depths of a water table or the height of high tide but by the hardening, or grace, of the notoriously fickle human soul.