The Left Must Put Refugees and Migration at the Heart of Its Politics

Mathew Carr rebukes Europe’s inhumane and fear-fueled response to the refugee crisis.

Tom Ladendorf

Syrian refugees attempt to cross into Hungary near the Serbian border. (Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed / Wikimedia Commons)

The current refugee crisis is the worst that Europe has seen since World War II, and in many countries, it remains in the political center stage. As Syrian and other refugees continue to flee to Europe to escape violence and destitution, the EU has struck a controversial new deal to stem the flow of asylum seekers. Public opinion on the issue remains sharply divided, with those expressing solidarity with refugees facing a re-energized, anti-migrant far right. Meanwhile, countless refugees remain trapped in detention camps or stuck behind borders, living in destitution.

The idea that the refugees don't just want to escape from a bullet, or a gun pointed to the head, that they want to reconstruct their lives in some way—at least while the crisis that's driven them out is going on—that's just ignored by people who want to ignore it.

To unpack the rhetoric and policy surrounding the crisis, I spoke with Matthew Carr, whose book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent offers an in-depth look at the crisis as it has unfolded in Europe. The book, which was reissued with a new afterword by the New Press earlier this year, provides on-the-spot coverage of everything from Europe’s militarized borders in Eastern Europe and North Africa to the marginalization and criminalization of refugees within Europe. Throughout, he makes the case for showing solidarity with refugees and treating migration as a humanitarian issue instead of a question of border control.

Terror attacks in Europe, like the Brussels attacks in March, suggest to many that security is a very serious concern when it comes to the question of accommodating refugees. How do you think a humane response to the refugee crisis can address these concerns?

You’re actually dealing with a very real threat for sure, a lot of it coming from inside Europe. Many of the people that participated in the attacks that we’ve seen over the last few years are French, essentially — they’re not refugees. We have to separate these issues. We ought to accept the fact that it’s impossible for any country in the world, and certainly in Europe, to protect themselves entirely against these threats. Therefore to suggest that somehow, the refugee flows that we’ve seen increase over the last couple years represents an existential security threat is overdone, exaggerated, quite often deliberately designed to misrepresent the issue.

What a response to the refugee crisis should be, as a crisis — a crisis of people seeking sanctuary in Europe because they’re fleeing wars, violence, and so on — the solution to me is to create safe routes for those people to get into Europe. And in fact, if you’re talking in terms of security, having legal, safe routes allows you to get a far better idea of who is coming than if you don’t have them.

In your book, you present an up-close view of the plight of refugees. The obstacles you discuss include homelessness, police violence, human trafficking, even indentured servitude. How are many able to ignore this harsh reality of migration to the extent that some are even talking of the greed” of migrants?

Even in the thirties, when it was recognized that there was oppression in Nazi Germany — you could not get a category of refugee with a more obvious right to cross borders — countries invented reasons why [refugees shouldn’t be allowed in]. So you’ve always had this situation in which in certain circumstances, countries are not disposed to accept certain categories of people. They will find ways of demeaning them, undermining them and misrepresenting them in a way that justifies [their] exclusion.

You see people constantly do this, saying things like, They’re not real refugees. If they were real refugees, they’d have stopped in Turkey.” There’s this idea that a refugee’s just somebody that has to be in a camp somewhere — preferably as far away from here as possible. The idea that the refugees don’t just want to escape from a bullet, or a gun pointed to the head, that they want to reconstruct their lives in some way — at least while the crisis that’s driven them out is going on — that’s just ignored by people who want to ignore it.

The EU and Turkey recently reached a new deal in which refugees trapped in Greece will be deported to Turkey, in exchange for which the EU is to accept asylum seekers from Turkey. What is your view of this deal?

A sordid deal, conjured up out of nowhere in a desperate attempt to stop people coming.

It’s not going to stop the problem it’s supposedly aimed to stop. The idea is that if you come illegally in a boat, you’ll get sent back, and then you might go to the back of the queue. So the idea is that that will discourage people traffickers.

But that raises the question: Why not simply find mechanisms that allow people to come to Europe directly without going through this ridiculous procedure? If there aren’t solid avenues for people to come from Turkey to Europe, then smugglers will simply move somewhere else. Which has been the whole story of Europe’s hardened borders over the last 20- or 30-odd years.

The far Right argues that mass immigration is incompatible with the welfare state. But you make an economic argument for accepting refugees. Can a humane approach to the refugee crisis be integrated into a broad, social-democratic economic program?

Yes, though the will has to be there to do it. There is an idea that the welfare state is a national phenomenon, that it depends on familiarity with people who are like you. Therefore if we get too many people coming in who are not like you, then you lose the will to sustain the welfare state. 

This argument is flawed. First of all, you have a system in which you have governments actually clawing back the welfare state regardless of whether there are immigrants or not. We have a hard-line, neoliberal government in the UK at the moment which is hell-bent on privatizing many of the institutions that we think of as British public institutions, that we associate with the welfare state. It’s convenient for a government like this to portray immigrants as the main threat to our welfare state.

So it’s a false dichotomy, then, because again and again, you see statistical information demonstrating that immigrants are a net boon to the British economy. That they contribute more than they take out. That they’re not particularly a drain on the welfare state. They tend to be young, they tend to be capable of work, they’ve left in order to work, they haven’t come to spend a lifetime sitting around on welfare. So I think we need to unpick these arguments and deal with them separately.

Arguably, Germany’s liberal refugee policies of the past year, which have now brought in over a million refugees, contributed to the recent electoral successes of Alternative für Deutschland, which is a right-wing populist party. How can the Left respond when solidarity with refugees can indirectly aid the far Right?

It’s a difficult question. The Left has to put refugees and migration at the heart of its politics.

On one level, we’re in quite a perilous situation politically. I sometimes call it pre-fascist, [or] potentially pre-fascist, in the sense that you’ve got a dangerous kind of perfect storm of conditions that can make it possible for a fascist movement to gain currency. Migration is one of them, but then you link that to austerity [and] a general hollowing out of democracy that we’re seeing in country after country. You’re seeing political systems that have been dominant for years being regarded with skepticism, mistrust and even contempt.

The only thing that can change that is [having] broad social movements of the Left to fight these tendencies. It’s not going to be easy, and at the moment, the Right is winning. They’re not only winning on their own terms: They’re winning because they’re setting the terms of the debate.

You’re getting center-right parties and even left-of-center parties essentially following an agenda that’s been set down for them by the far Right, by the new populist parties. And they’ll often say things like, We better do this. Because if we don’t do it, you’ll get them. You’ll get Golden Dawn.” That’s been said in Greece by some of the politicians there, conservative and leftist.

So it’s a tough fight, but it’s a fight that must be fought. And it’s a fight that can’t be dependent on saying, Let’s just simply stop migrants from coming.” That’s like saying you would remove antisemitism if you didn’t have Jews.

And we need to basically integrate that into our politics and find ways to develop international, pan-European movements that can campaign against it. It’s not a fight that’s doomed to fail. In Germany, we saw it happen in the summer. For a while, the Left were winning that particular war — they were the ones who persuaded Angela Merkel to accept large numbers of migrants into Germany. So we need to keep campaigning for that.

You’ve got your hardcore fascists, racist bigots and so on who are always going to say what they’re going to say. But you have millions of people around them who I call hoverers. People who might be slightly frightened, alarmed, disturbed by the things that are taking place. And our task from the Left is to win them over to our side. If we lose this one we lose a great deal more.

Europe has a rich history of multiculturalism that goes back centuries and which includes, for instance, Celtic speakers in France, Germans in Bohemia and Muslims in Spain. How can Europe foster a better understanding of this history, which seems to undermine arguments in favor of cultural homogeneity?

You’re right to point that multicultural history out. But at the same time, one of the driving forces of European politics for hundreds of years was the idea of carving out homogeneous spaces — either ethnically, racially, ideologically or religiously. So in some ways the European Union was a huge step away from that.

One of the things we’ve seen in the last few years is a re-emergence of this old drive towards homogeneity coming from the far Right in particular. Let’s talk about the spectrum, really, from the mainstream Right, conservative parties, towards the far Right, which have all placed national identity at the heart of their politics.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be overtly racial. Nowadays, you get them talking more and more in terms of culture. I’m never quite sure what they mean by culture, but they’re talking about our culture” versus their culture.” For those of us who embrace this multicultural heritage that you’re talking about, who accept that diversity is a natural part of one’s individual experience, it’s quite difficult to have a decent conversation with people who think, No, you need to have one territorial space where you exclude people who threaten that identity in some way.”

We have to keep making the arguments that cultural diversity and multiculturalism are essential parts of our experience as Europeans, as national citizens and individuals. It’s ludicrous and ridiculous to try and deny it. And it’s also wrong to try and portray certain groups as a threat to it. You might have heard some of these arguments from the European far Right saying that multiculturalism is a Trojan horse. By celebrating it, you’re actually allowing Muslim cultural invaders to enter your country and take it over piece by piece, we’ll have Sharia law in 20 years, all this kind of stuff.

These are fake arguments, strawman arguments, and they can easily be argued against. But they’re also quite visceral, so logic doesn’t always work with them. But once again, to go back to what I said before: Those people, you can’t really persuade about anything. One has to actually try and persuade the hoverers, the millions and millions who don’t think like that, to think differently.

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Tom Ladendorf is an American writer and musician who lives in Cologne, Germany, and a former In These Times editorial intern.
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