By Kari van der Ploeg -
This summer the world was shocked when a photo of a little Syrian boy went viral. He was pictured face down in the sand, drowned before the coast of Greece. In no time, the public opinion regarding the European refugee crisis turned emotional. A consensus was reached among the European population that a more empathetic approach to the problem was needed. However, as people started arriving in Europe and the local population saw the practical consequences of the crisis, public opinion soon shifted to anger.
As you can read in Marieke’s article, locals are mostly concerned about the large amount of new refugee shelters that are being set up and the presumed problems that come along with them. How is our government going to find money to feed these people, are the means present to give them social benefits, what if they ‘take our jobs’? Concerns about welfare are supressing the empathy some people once felt. The consequence is that the debate is polarizing and people are becoming increasingly scared. Moderation in the debate is being shunned as everyone needs to be pro or against refugees*. Fuelled by right winged politicians and media, many people no longer see refugees as people escaping war but stereotype them as troublemakers, freeloaders and war criminals. A dehumanizing rhetoric is taking over the debate by referring to refugees in terms such as a ‘tsunami of refugees’ (in other words: a deadly force of refugees).
While reading certain social media content such as the Dutch ‘Geen Stijl’ or the Facebook page ‘NK vluchteling vangen met een vangnet’ (National Championship catching refugees with a safety net – recently removed by Facebook) one comes to believe that the majority of refugees are thugs and terrorists who have come to Europe to convert us to the Islam and rape little girls. Under the pretence of humour, people vocalize their frustrations, anger and fears and push each other into a more violent rhetoric against refugees. Some examples of these comments are: “To what extent are refugees armed exactly? I am reading more and more disturbing things about this”, “They work in groups, they don’t need weapons to rape little girls”** The continuous outpouring of venomous thoughts is shocking to read. A lot of counter arguments are being heard as well but moderation is hard to find in the debate among common men. It made me wonder how it was possible that the debate has shifted to fast from empathy to concern and anger. Is there any truth to these worries, do we really have to be concerned about our own safety and welfare?
In September, the story of a Syrian man and his seven year old son headed the news when they were tripped by a Hungarian camerawomen as they were trying to escape from a collection point in Roszke village, Hungary. Abdul Mohsen’s life was turned upside down when it became public that he used to be a football coach back in Syria, and he was offered a place on a Spanish soccer coach academy. Mohsen and his son were welcomed personally in the Spanish capital by players of Real Madrid, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Soon after however, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) accused him of being a member of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Syria. They released a statement holding Mohsen accountable for war crimes against Kurds and other civilian minorities since 2011. The PYD published a photo of Mohsen’s Facebook account where he identifies himself as a member of the Al-Nusra front, adding that he fought Kurds near Amudeh, Serekaniya and Afrin.
The incident of Abdul Mohsen poses an example of what many people in Europe are scared of. With a large amount of people streaming in to Europe it is nearly impossible to research the background of every single one of them. According to newspaper ´de Volkskrant´, the Dutch secret services (AIVD) claim that there is no indication to be scared for large numbers of terrorists among refugees. However, prominent public Dutch figures such as Geert Wilders and Bram Moszcowicz fuel fear with fictional numbers and simplistic statements. Wilders claims that 2% of the refugees that arrive in Europe are radicalized. Moszcowicz added that he is scared that the people that find it normal to behead others are among refugees. “They don’t allow us to live” he said at a meeting of the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, in September. The AIVD however does not recognize these numbers or sentiments. It is possible that in individual instances a radicalized person could be among the rest of the refugees, but the numbers are in no way as high as politicians claim, according to the AIVD. There is a sound procedure in place to screen those who are entering our country. Last year only a very small number of Syrians were arrested on the suspicion of being involved in possible war crimes. It is also important to note that ISIS actually warns its men not to travel to the West, away from the caliphate. Leaving the caliphate is considered treason and makes it therefore highly unlikely that there are large amount of ISIS members among refugees.
Cases such as the one of Abdul Mohsen focusses a large part of the discussion on the dangers of war criminals among refugees. What people do not realize is that this focus brings dangers of its own. Genuine refugees are being stigmatized and threatened by the local population, whereas the presence of war criminals among them is most dangerous for them. Rena Netjes, Arabic scholar and Middle-East expert spoke with Radio 1 on Tuesday and vocalized the sentiments among refugees. According to Netjes, refugees are scared for Assad’s power, even here. Most of them still have family back in Syria and fear that their family members will be hurt if the Mukhabarat (Syrian Military Intelligence Dictatorate) discovers their identity. Netjes confirms that members of the Mukhabarat are among those who are entering Europe right now. I have spoken with a Syrian refugee myself who told me about similar sentiments. She escaped Syria and the threat of being arrested by the government in 2011, leaving her family behind in Damascus. Knowing that the people she tried to get away from are still among her, makes her feel trapped, she tells me. She is not necessarily scared for herself, but more for what they might do to her family if they find out who she is and why she left Syria.
The debate in Europe has been consumed lately with the fear of the loss of welfare to the influx of refugees. Stereotyping them as war criminals seems like an easy way of channelling these fears, which are sparked by extremely right-winged politicians. It has to be taken into consideration though that the numbers are in fact much lower than for instance the 2% of war criminals among refugees that Geert Wilders claims. Since the 1990s a lot of procedures have been created to screen these criminals and even bring them to trial. This is not only important for our own safety but also for the safety of genuine refugees themselves. I believe it is important that the public debate incorporates a more moderate discourse in which questions will be answered to the European population based on facts instead of fears. It needs to become clear who we are giving refuge to and why we do not need to be scared of them.
* In this article I define refugees as people that escape war, not to be confused with people that migrate due to economic reasons.
**“In hoeverre zijn asielzoeker/vluchtelingen/immigranten eingelijk bewapend? Lees en hoor hier steeds meer zeer verontrustende berichten over, ook bij mij in de buurt…..” en “Ze opereren vaak in groepjes. Dan heb je geen wapens nodig om dat jonge meisje je wil op te leggen.”