CREDIT: Ggia - Wikimedia (CC). Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive at Lesvos, Greece, October 2015.
While migrants seeking to escape conflict, persecution, poverty, and environmental disaster have been crossing the Mediterranean by boat to seek sanctuary in Europe for a number of years, in 2015 the scale of arrivals increased beyond all expectations. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in excess of one million arrivals, with migrants arriving from more than 100 countries and with over 4,000 people drowning on the crossing. So far in 2016, some 205,000 have arrived by sea, with 90 percent coming from the top 10 refugee-producing countries. The largest number is from Syria (49 percent), followed by Afghanistan (25 percent), and Iraq (15 percent) (figures from UNHCR, 2016). In addition, over 2,500 migrants have drowned so far this year. The media and EU governments are clear that this is a "crisis" but vacillate between terming it a migration, refugee, or humanitarian crisis. Many have proclaimed it to be the greatest crisis since World War II. Italy and particularly Greece have encountered the majority of arrivals—many of whom then continue to Germany, Sweden, and Austria to claim asylum. Others, generally with relatives in the UK, wait for an opportunity to cross the English Channel in makeshift camps.
Europe's response to the crisis has been far from coherent and is constantly evolving. German Chancellor Angela Merkel initially set the bar for a humanitarian response, welcoming all-comers and arguing wir schaffen das (we will cope). Daimler's Chairman Dieter Zetsche argued that the new arrivals should be seen as a great opportunity for Germany to address its skills and labor shortages. Elsewhere response was less effusive, with Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban proclaiming the arrivals as the end of "Christian Europe." Open borders in Sweden, Austria, and Germany have rapidly been clos.... The New Internationalist's"bordernomics" infographic shows "who's cashing in on keeping migrants out," highlighting $10.6 million spent on securing the French/British border at Calais, $1 billion spent on border patrols (since 1999) and $12 billion spent on deportation. The overwhelming message from politicians and policymakers is that of panic as the "crisis" is portrayed as out of control and increasingly draconian measures taken to control numbers, including outsourcing the "problem" to neighbouring middle income countries with dubious human rights records.
No wonder then that the public are reported to feel the crisis is out of control. A recent poll showed 56 percent of French and 47 percent of UK people polled wanted to receive no refugees while 38 percent of Germans reported feeling frightened of refugees. The media has portrayed refugees as bogus or as security risks while the Paris attacks and sexual assaults in Cologne were partly blamed on refugees. Evidence demonstrates that even subtle shifts in the language used by the media to describe immigration has an impact on public opinion about the desirability of migration (Blinder and Jeannet, 2014). Immigration and the crisis has been hyper-politicised – the key concern of the public and politicians and perhaps the main bone of contention in the UK's Brexit debate. Mainstream politicians have declared that multiculturalism has failed and espouse the need for all new migrants, refugee arrivals included, to become more like us. Talk of assimilation is intensified further by the new right-wing parties who have risen fast to take advantage of anti-immigration rhetoric and claim that they, unlike existing politicians, will regain control.