Our elected leaders do not have an easy task on their hands: they must revive a battered economy during a time when globalisation is fundamentally changing the labour market. They could have made the task easier on themselves by not adopting austerity, a historically devastating policy when applied in times of economic contraction. But instead of acknowledging a need to change course, European politicians across the political spectrum have found a convenient scapegoat in refugees.
60 million people around the world are currently fleeing war. To hear our politicians speak of this crisis, you would think all 60 million refugees were being housed in Europe, and are wreaking havoc on our welfare systems. In reality, the European Union –the battleground of two world wars, home to 500 million people and one of the richest regions in the world– received 216,300 applications for asylum in 2014. By contrast, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have taken in 2.2 million refugees. Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya have absorbed half a million South Sudanese refugees.
Despite this embarrassingly modest number of refugee applications, we are to believe that they are a drain on our economy and of such danger to us, that it is better to let them drown by the thousands in the Mediterranean?
As long as politicians continue to pit refugees against those who are legitimately concerned about their financial future, solutions to our economic woes will remain elusive. Refugees are neither a drain on our economy, nor potential criminals. They are victims of wars in which we have played no small role. This blaming of outsiders who lack citizens’ rights is convenient, and enables political leaders to avoid the more difficult conversations on the need to create jobs for a generation of young people across the continent.
It is time to face reality. Five years of austerity policies have brought the Greek people to their knees and mired the rest of Southern Europe in stagnation. It is shameful to blame poor pensioners or minimum wage workers for public debts made to bail out European banks, and to blame migrants and refugees for jobs that austerity has wiped out and globalisation has relocated. European elites need to take responsibility for failed policies and for privileging the rich and the banks over people like us.
So on June 20, World Refugee day, let us do more than stand alongside refugees, and support their efforts to find a safe haven and rights protections. Let us reject the politicization and scapegoating of refugees for the inability of our leaders to respond to the modern economy.
If we do not change course, Europe can become a space of resurgent fascism and nationalism. But if we work to build a new Europe, it can become a space of humanity, justice and fairness. We know the Europe we want. The prospect of building a new Europe is bold. But the consequences of inaction are devastating. Let us choose the bold path instead.