Srdja Pavlovic: Refugees Ante Portas: Reflections on Strategies of Accommodation in the Age of Disposable Life

The ongoing refugee crisis has significant impact on the framework the European Union applies in order to coordinate and develop border management for member states as well as on the migration processes within the EU itself. Established as the EU agency in 2004 and tasked with helping border authorities from different EU countries work together, FRONTEX is seeing its fundamental premises tested and questioned on a daily basis.

In truth, it is nothing new to argue that the idea about the uninterrupted movement of people within the EU has been plagued by contradictions from the early days of the European Union. On the one hand, there is the freedom of movement and a commitment to the protection of human rights. On the other, there are state borders, monetary diktats, and most recently physical barriers (walls and razor wire) preventing refugees and migrants from reaching their desired destinations. For the bureaucrats in Brussels and experts on migration this contradiction had been apparent for some time already. What brought it into our homes and made it front page news was the massive scale of current refugee crisis and the panic with which EU member states responded to it. The outbursts of xenophobia, racism, religious extremism, bigotry and barbarity make Konstantin Kavafi’s statement about early 20th century being the time of bankrupt nations ring true today. Judging by the responses to the refugee crisis ours is the era of disposable life indeed. The spectre of Orbanization is haunting Europe. That is many people draw parallels with past cases of forced population movement in the mid-20th century.

Much like for their early and mid-20th century predecessors, the instrumentalizing of the refugee problem is again the favourite punch-line for contemporary conservative and right-wing politicians and political wannabies in Europe and North America. Once again, they reinforce a manufactured fear of refugees and insist on a distinction between refugees and economic immigrants.

The danger of such fear and distinction is real and visible all around us, both in Europe and North America. We see it in stereotypes advanced in the media in the form of the VDD complex: Victimization + Demonization + Discrimination. In Europe, and in the United States the VDD complex dominates discussion about refugees. In Canada, less so. Let me touch upon some of the elements of the VDD complex.

A desire to establish oneself and provide for one’s family is viewed by some as a predatory economic tactic. Today, refugees are being portrayed by many as a danger to local economies. We hear warnings about possible rise in criminal activities, about gradual loss of identity, painful demographic changes, and similar fear-inducing topics. Once a blessing to developing economies, including ours, migrants and refugees are now seen by many as a curse. It is true that the short-term negative effect of the current refugee crisis is primarily financial. States and municipalities (provinces and territories in the case of Canada) will have to provide significant funding for education and health care needs of the refugees. There are, however, significant advantages even in this initial period of accommodation. This is especially true for younger refugees. As soon as they find employment, they become an integral part of the tax system and contribute to society in a very concrete fashion. Moreover, some economists argue that refugees and newcomers contribute in the long run by elevating the creativity levels in the host country. As an example, they often cite the impact European immigrants to the United States prior to and during the Second World War had on all strata of American society.

The stereotype about rising crime rates as a consequence of accepting refugees and migrants falls within the Victimization element of the VDD complex. At the same time, the local population is presented as a victim while the government is importing criminogenic elements en masse. Decades-long research into the relation between rising crime rates and the influx of immigrants from diverse backgrounds into British cities, and London in particular, however, had shown hardly an inkling of a relation between the two.

When it comes to insisting on drawing the line between refugees (or the so-called ‘genuine refugees’) and economic migrants, it should be said that such a distinction is exclusively police criteria. It has nothing to do with social, cultural, or human right criteria. Using such distinction as main selection criteria would only create problems. Those running for their lives from bombs and the poverty created by bombs would, if pressed by circumstances, almost certainly resort to misrepresenting their situations. The history of migration is filled with stories of misrepresentation and deception in order to stay alive and settle in a safe and peaceful environment. Furthermore, how is a visa officer to determine which desperate soul meets the criteria of one of the categories? How to determine that a person has arrived from a safe country and is therefore ineligible to be accepted, if we take into account that today Afghanistan is considered a safe country!?

Demonization comes next and it rests entirely on the utter lack of knowledge about diverse cultures and immigrant communities. One of the more troubling narratives of demonization has been that of the fertility of migrants and their high rate of childbirth. We often hear that “they give birth to ten kids or more” which represents “a demographic threat to us”, etc. Research conducted in EU member-states of Austria and Slovenia demonstrated that Muslim immigrants who arrived to those countries some decades ago from Bosnia and Herzegovina had their birth rate drop to the average of 2 children per family. One of the reasons for this shift could be located within the economic sphere: for example, the entering of women into the workforce in their adopted countries. While for many immigrants this has been and remains an issue of economic necessity, for the host country providing employment for women immigrants from more traditional societies constitutes a strategy of accommodation and accepting.

Historical parallels nothwithstanding, the current refugee crisis differs from previous points of historical comparison in two important ways.

First, the point of origin is different. Today’s refugees and forcibly displaced persons have been, to a significant degree, the product of decades-long Western practice of the militarization of foreign policy.

Another element that makes the current crisis different from earlier ones is the huge number of people seeking refuge. According to the 2015 report by the U.N. High Commisison for Refugees over 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. The report concludes that on a global scale “one person in every 122 has been forced to flee their home.”

Europe is faced with millions of undocumented refugees who arrive at the camps and processing station with nothing more than clothes on their back. FRONTEX mechanisms for responding to this crisis does not seem sufficient. The EU administration and the generation of Europeans enjoying the benefits of the EU legal framework has never before encountered such high numbers of refugee claimants and such complex typologies of migrants. Reactions on all levels – national governments and the EU administration alike – are filled with panic because those bureaucracies do not understand the basic parameters of the crisis. All they know is that behind this mass of refugees there is the diversity Europe knows little or nothing about and is unable to deal with. This, of course, is not new and one only needs to remember how Algerians have been ghettoised in France.

That diversity is extremely important and we need to study it thoroughly and understand its inner space. I believe that this is crucial because our knowledge and understanding of this diversity, or the lack of such knowledge and understanding, will determine the treatment of those refugees who manage to remain in various European countries. Of course, empathy towards refugees is also important but we should not forget that empathy fades out rather quickly and it cannot be the basis for a strategy or any plan of action. What is certain, however, is that we will be studying and try to decipher the effects of the current refugee crises for decades to come.

This refugee crisis has highlighted the need for rethinking earlier models and even introducing some fundamental changes in the EU immigration policy. Two things have been clear from the start.

First is the lesson of history: neither wire fences nor walls can stop people from running for their lives and reaching places of safety. Walls, however, achieve things that are strictly for domestic consumption: they isolate the builders and their communities from the outside world and provide false security and misplaced hope that those living within the confines of high concrete barriers might somehow avoid sharing the responsibility for help create conditions that resulted in the forced movement of population.

Second is the central role of local communities in managing the influx of refugees and carrying on the processes of accommodation and integration. The importance of local communities could not be stressed strong enough and governments would be well advised to focus on strengthening the existing mechanisms and help building new ones for accommodation on a local level. Local communities are the most important factor determining the success or failure of the accepting of refugees. They are the front line in the process of accepting and accommodating refugees, and will remain so for the initial two to three years following the arrival of refugees. This is a difficult position to be in, both socially and financially. National governments should shoulder the large portion of this financial burden. The ‘social capital’ of local communities is a very important element in the interaction with refugees. If local communities are strong and well-developed and if they know how to successfully mitigate internal strife and embrace diversity, they will be good ports of call for refugees. Governments need to work on creating new social networks while strengthening those that exist already in local communities in order to prepare them for the influx of new and diverse groups and for gradual integrating of newcomers. Such integration further enhances the existing level of diversity of a local community.

A point of departure in thinking about ways of solving the massive refugee crisis and accommodating newcomers could be the Good Society Project started last year at the London School of Economics (LSE). It is all about building a political base for democracy and pluralism, and about building functional mechanisms for managing large demographic shifts. But it is also about building a political base for the reforming of social democracy in order to address the problems caused by the New Cold War and the militarization of foreign policy.

Dr. Srdja Pavlovic teaches modern European and South Slavic history in the Department of History & Classics at the University of Alberta. He is the editor of the upcoming volume entitled It Could Have Been Spring: Case Studies of Direct Democracies and Active Citizenship (NOMOS, 2017). Dr. Pavlovic is a research associate with the Wirth Institute of Austrian and Central European Studies (U of A) and is currently working on the research project Refugee Crisis and the Politics of Accommodation: Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. He recently penned two op-ed articles in the Edmonton Journal about the refugee crisis called Stop the war, not the flow of people and Refugees at the gate, elephant in the room. Dr. Pavlovic could be reached at