The air is toxic: refugees and the ghosts of European history

Before they properly industrialised their killing of Jews, Roma and thousands of other victims in large-scale gas chambers, the Nazis had experimented with gassing people in vans (Gaswagen). They would feed the exhaust fumes into the backs of the vehicles where up to 60 people were crammed into sealed wagons. Using just three of these Gaswagen in a few weeks in December 1940 and January 1941, German soldiers subjected 97,000 Jewish men, women and children to a slow, horrible death by asphyxiation.

One of Europe’s darkest moments. But were these deaths any more horrible than the deaths of the 71 people in the Slovakian lorry somewhere on its fateful journey from Hungary into Austria last week? No. Of course the intentionality was very different. The Third Reich’s extermination campaign was planned and ruthlessly executed on a vast scale. A loose network of modern people-smugglers certainly act ruthlessly and very often criminally, but in most cases they don’t intend to kill their human cargo.

But still, a horrible death by suffocation in a pitch-black chicken meat lorry (company slogan “Honest Chicken”) or in the crowded hold of a diesel fume-filled boat in the Mediterranean is still ... a horrible death. Yet what’s been the political response to this horror? In many quarters it’s the same “Fortress Europe” approach that’s got us absolutely nowhere for years. So more fences are announced for Calais and a four-metre-high razor-wire-topped steel fence is built the entire length of Hungary's 174km border with Serbia. So while politicians like Theresa May and the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban focus on “security” - or indeed on trying to concoct a spectacularly wrong-headed system of designated “safe countries” from which asylum claimants will automatically face disqualification - the death toll mounts.

How must this look to the Syrian families who’ve fled their homeland (possibly escaping somewhere like bombed and besieged Eastern Ghouta)? Or to the young Eritreans escaping slavery-like military conscription in Isias Afwerki’s notoriously repressive Eritrea? It looks like what it is: a drawbridge pulled up, the battlements fortified. The message is clear: Europe doesn’t want you.

It’s taken hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean this year to even get European countries to talk about a humane, region-wide response to the crisis and even then a modest EU quota proposal has descended into unseemly squabbling with countries (the UK included) completely opting out. The German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has called this attitude a “huge disgrace”, and he's totally right.

Let’s remember: only a tiny fraction of the world’s 19.5 million refugees ever come anywhere near Europe. For example, while the 250,000 or so men, women and children who’ve arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean in the first half of this year is an unprecedentedly large number for Europe, it’s still only around 1% of the global refugee population. Instead, vastly larger numbers are being hosted by countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Chad and Kenya. Turkey is the only European country to have accommodated significantly large numbers and Germany the only EU country. Of the four million-plus Syrians turned into refugees by conflict and persecution, many have ended up living - often quite precariously - in huge camps like Zaatari in Jordan or Ain al-Hilweh in Lebanon. Others are eking out even more precarious existences outside the camps, with some - like “the pen man of Beirut” Abdul Halim Attar - desperately trying to survive by selling small items on the street.

So while many European countries throw up the barricades and argue over a few thousand people, there are already around 1.2 million refugees in tiny Lebanon, one for every four Lebanese people. It's like the UK hosting 16 million refugees instead of the minuscule numbers that actually come here (there were 25,771 asylum applications in Britain in the year to June 2015, and on recent recognition rates only about half of these will actually be recognised as refugees).

Against this backdrop, when British politicians use dehumanising language like “swarms” of “marauding” migrants it’s doubly shameful - not least because they know it will have a toxic effect, ratcheting up fear and triggering xenophobia. Meanwhile, another measure of Britain’s mean-spirited response is that it’s taken in - after much political reluctance and delay - only 216 Syrians under its “Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme”. Instead Germany has pledged to take 35,000, Norway 9,000. (See this Sky News item on one of the rare examples of the UK actively helping a Syrian family).

Thankfully there have been more enlightened European responses. From individuals like the Calais couple Linda and Yves Aubry, to countries like Sweden and Germany, Germany in particular. There's an unmistakable historical irony to this. Germany, the origin of so much European suffering in the 1930s and ‘40s, is now leading the way with Europe’s present-day response to the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two.

But political ghosts still haunt modern Germany. One of the Syrians featured in a recent Guardian account of refugees arriving in southern Germany talks hopefully of learning German and rebuilding the shattered life he’s left behind in Aleppo. Jad is young and despite all he’s been through mostly optimistic. Yet he’s also worried about what might happen to him in Germany - he’s heard about the anti-immigrant protests and violence outside asylum shelters. “I just hope I don’t meet any Nazis”, he says. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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