Fear and loathing is no solution

Reports emerging from Cologne, and other cities in Germany and beyond, have unleashed a wave of anger towards the open door policy.

The Cologne events, where large numbers of women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed by gangs of men of Arab or North African appearance during New Year’s eve celebrations, have raised a number of poignant questions on how Europe should deal with migration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policies toward refugees resulted in Europe’s largest country absorbing more than one million people in 2015. Reports emerging from Cologne, and other cities in Germany and beyond, have unleashed a wave of anger towards the open door policy.

While the racist and at times violent reaction of the extreme right and fascist fringes comes as no surprise, people in Germany and other European countries are questioning whether Merkel’s policy is based on misplaced tolerance.

Europeans, especially liberals and leftists, are faced with a quandary when trying to balance the right of people to seek refuge in Europe, and the sacrosanct rights of women and men to walk and celebrate freely and in peace in their towns and cities.

It must be said that the influx of over one million refugees in Germany alone has created social tensions and caused structural problems. To compound matters further, most of the refugees are young males. However grave the risk of generalisation, it is futile to deny that cultural differences do exist, and that for some of these respect towards women and equality of sexes is alien.

But even if what happened in Cologne is of grave concern, blowing the incidents out of proportion is just as dangerous as concealing or minimising them. Following last year’s Paris attacks there has undeniably been a backlash targeting Muslims in Europe… and this backlash does not necessarily distinguish between the real cause of such disturbances, and innocent people who are merely practising their own religion.

In Malta we have seen manifestations of the same phenomenon. A photo of Muslims praying on the Msida waterfront this week elicited a reaction of hostility that often bordered on the ferocious. Many of the people commenting overlooked the fact that public worship, in a variety of forms, is an everyday reality in Malta… so long as the religion is Catholicism.

This sort of hypocrisy does not help address the very real issues raised by Cologne. Venting frustration at such crimes on law-abiding Muslim citizens is not only pointless, but also counter-productive. It only creates more victims and perpetuates injustice.

One must also be realistic about the global situation. Angela Merkel’s policy may have caused problems, but one must also ask what was the alternative to letting one million refugees into Germany last summer. What would have happened if hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and death in Syria were not allowed into the EU?

Admittedly, a slow assimilation over a longer period of time would trigger less friction and tension. But a peaceful solution to the Syrian war will not happen overnight, and surely closing our doors is no solution. On the contrary, it could make matters worse. We could end up with a false sense of normality, whereby the European way of life is cocooned by a fenced perimeter from a surrounding wasteland of violence and death.

Until such time as the Middle East and surrounding regions enjoy the sort of stability we in Europe take for granted, there is no point in discussing ‘magic wand’ solutions. The only ‘solution’, such that it is, lies in preparing ourselves for future jolts, while ascertaining that fundamental human rights are respected. 

We must make sure that our social and welfare infrastructure can deal effectively with a sudden influx. Structures must be in place to ensure that refugees integrate well and quickly. Refugees must understand and respect European ways of life, as much as Europeans must learn to live with refugees in these troubled times.

Managing migration might sound like corporate talk, but the reality is that refugees cannot be refused safe passage into Europe. Nonetheless, this should not be done blindly. The sudden influx of the refugees will inevitably produce social tensions. It will be a strain on our welfare systems. It will force economical models to change. This brings about uncertainty, which in turn fuels fear and anger. But we should not buck the challenge. Otherwise the only people who will pay the price for social harmony in the world’s richest continent are the ones fleeing Assad’s cluster bombs and the Islamic State’s beheadings.

Europe cannot forget that it, too, played a part in creating the conditions for the present instability. 

The Arab Spring came around because young people, who make up the majority of North African and Middle East countries, have no future in their own countries. The transition of these countries to democracy and freedom will not happen instantly – if at all – and Europe and the international community must step up efforts to support countries which choose secular democracy over authoritarianism and religious extremism.

The reality, however, is that European countries often hastened the demise of stable regimes, without thinking of the aftermath. This places an onus of responsibility on Europe. We cannot expect to meddle in the affairs of other countries, and not pay any price.

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