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Ethnic and Racial Studies

ISSN: 0141-9870 (Print) 1466-4356 (Online) Journal homepage:

Peeling an onion: the “refugee crisis” from a historical perspective

Leo Lucassen

To cite this article: Leo Lucassen (2018) Peeling an onion: the “refugee crisis” from a historical perspective, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:3, 383-410, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1355975

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Peeling an onion: the “refugee crisis” from a historical perspective Leo Lucassen a,b

aInternational Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands; bInstitute for History, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands

ABSTRACT This paper asks a simple question: why did Western and other European politicians become so alarmed and, in some cases, downright apocalyptic at the rise of asylum seekers in 2014–16, especially compared to the previous refugee crisis in the 1990s? This paper argues that in 2014/2015, a “perfect storm” developed, bringing together factors that in the past had been largely unrelated and then converged with new ones. Peeling the onion of societal discontent with migrants and refugees has revealed five necessary and sufficient conditions: (1) discomfort with immigration and integration of colonial and labour migrants from North Africa and Turkey (1970–80s); (2) growing social inequality and widespread pessimism about globalization (1980s–); (3) A growing discomfort with Islam (1990s–); (4) Islamist terrorism (2000s–) and (5) the rise of radical right populist parties (2000s).

ARTICLE HISTORY Received 8 May 2017; Accepted 11 July 2017

KEYWORDS Refugees; migration; social inequality; populism; islamophobia; terrorism


In the summer of 2015, facing a rapidly rising influx of asylum seekers, the Dutch government – unprepared despite early warning signs – frantically sought municipalities willing to accommodate temporary centres for asylum seekers, preferably with a capacity of 1,000 or more. The ensuing protests from localities were to be expected, especially from those that already had a disproportionately large share of asylum seekers among their inhabitants. Similar protests had occurred in the 1990s, when still greater numbers of asylum seekers entered the Netherlands and other Western European countries. Nor was the depiction of asylum seekers as a burden to the welfare state and as potential criminals unprecedented. What was new in this case was the apocalyptical tone of mainstream politicians and commen- tators, who – like the leader of the liberal party (VVD) in Parliament – asserted in October 2015 that the large number of predominantly Muslim asylum

© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

CONTACT Leo Lucassen [email protected]

ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES, 2018 VOL. 41, NO. 3, 383–410

seekers would lead to the implosion of the welfare state, followed in January 2017 by an open letter from Prime Minister Mark Rutte to the Dutch popu- lation associating refugees with rejection of Dutch core values.1 The discourse of liberal Dutch politicians barely concealed the rhetoric of Geert Wilders, the leader of the radical right Freedom Party (PVV). In September 2015, Wilders urged “resistance” to asylum seekers reception centres, because these “Muslim testosterone bombs” aimed to assault “our women” and sheltered terrorists intent on destroying European and especially Dutch society. Incited by the toxic rhetoric from Geert Wilders, small groups of extremists attacked temporary reception centres, while others disrupted local meetings convened by the authorities to notify the public about plans to accommodate asylum seekers temporarily. Although in most cases no serious incidents occurred, there were violent protests in localities in the fall of 2015. Extremists intimidated local politicians and those in favour of housing asylum seekers. In other countries, the government message reproduced radical right populist discourse, including systematic dehumanization of refugees in British tabloids and the symbolic threat by the Danish government to invoke the “Jewelry Law” to confiscate money and valuables from asylum seekers at the border. This measure was not implemented, but its message was clear and reflects the alarmist tone of the debate. So far, only in Germany – apart from the Pegida movement and the radical right Alternative für Deutschland – have mainstream politicians largely abstained from such discourse.

The main question I address in this paper is why the xenophobic, Islamo- phobic and apocalyptical reactions by radical right-wing parties and move- ments resonated far more broadly than in the 1990s and were adopted in part by mainstream parties, both in the Netherlands and throughout the Euro- pean Union (EU) in general. This is not to claim that asylum seekers were wel- comed in the 1990s. Also then part of the population, as well as politicians, thought that too many were coming and that part of them were abusing the system (Kushner and Knox 1999, part 5; Schuster 2003; Jeffers 2012). And also then, laws were changed to reduce the numbers of applicants. The crucial difference with the present, however, was the absence of an anti-Islam rhetoric and publicly voiced existential fears of Europe’s sheer cul- tural and demographic existence being at stake due to unlimited of poor (Muslim) migrants from Asia and Africa.

So what has changed in the past twenty years? The obvious answer are the unprecedented numbers and cultural diversity of asylum seekers since 2014. With respect to the former, that is true to some extent. The number of asylum seekers from other continents arriving in the EU in 2015 was unprecedented and countries like Sweden and Germany had never seen such high numbers of asylum seekers in recent history (Figure 1). For most other countries, however, like the Netherlands, the numbers in that year mirrored previous peaks in the 1990s. Moreover, when we look at the total numbers per half a


decade and compare the 1990s with the first half of the 2010s, then the numbers and origin in recent years do not deviate significantly from what Western Europe experienced two decades ago (Figures 2 and 3). To the con- trary, the total numbers in the years 2011–15 are lower than those in the first half of the 1990s. Furthermore, the sudden increase in numbers in 2014 and especially 2015 had a clear cause, the civil war in Syria, and there was no sign that an indifferent mass of poor migrants from the Global South had been unleashed. To the contrary, three quarters of the asylum seekers originated from a limited number of war zones: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and, of course, Syria (Figure 4).

Apparently, something else has been going on. The aim of this paper is to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions to enable the recent shift in perception and reaction to the arrival of asylum seekers and other migrants. To this end, I will review history in stages, testing possible explanations and factors, and will unveil the broader context of the moral and public panic con- cerning refugees. Before we start pealing this onion, let us first examine the numbers and origins since the 1980s.

Asylum seekers: numbers and origin

By far, the highest numbers of refugees in Europe were produced at the end of the Second World War, when ten to twelve million refugees and displaced persons, coming from twenty countries and speaking thirty-five languages, were looking for a new place to stay, and camps in Germany and Austria were packed with people (Bade and Oltmer 2011, 74). Many were forced to wait years, until any country (whether in Western Europe or North America) allowed them to settle there (Kay and Miles 1992). When this flux of displacements finally stabilized in the course of the 1950s, requests for asylum plummeted and remained low until the 1980s, largely due to the Iron Curtain. In Western Europe, refugees amounted to only few thou- sand per year. The exceptions were after the Hungarian Revolt in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, when hundreds of thousands escaped to the West,2 where they were welcomed as victims of Communism. Most states stressed ideological and other similarities of the refugees to their own population, although in practice some were much more restrictive behind the scenes than their superficial welcoming rhetoric suggests (e.g. the Dutch government towards those from Hungary) (Ten Doesschate 2011). These refugees from the Eastern block could and did invoke the Geneva Convention on Refugees from 1951, which by 1956 had been ratified by virtually all Western European countries. This Convention was limited to Europeans who fled their homeland with a “well-founded fear of persecu- tion.” From October 1967 onwards, however, the Convention was globalized by the “Protocol relating to the status of refugees,” submitted to the General


Assembly of the United Nations. Initially, this Protocol did not lead to higher numbers of refugees moving within and to Europe. These numbers remained below around 20,000 per year (Figure 1).

Change started in the late 1970s, when refugee numbers increased from around 25,000 in 1975 to over 150,000 in 1980. This coincided with an expand- ing catchment area. In the 1980s, about 60 per cent came from the Third World, including one-third from the Middle East (Lebanon, Iran), 15 per cent from the Indian subcontinent (especially Tamils from Sri Lanka) and the remaining 10 per cent from conflict regions in Africa (Loescher 1993, 111; Messina 2007, 44). The next spike in the numbers was in the 1990s, caused initially by Bosnians and Croats fleeing the Yugoslav Civil War. Former Yugo- slavs seeking sanctuary in Western Europe were soon superseded numerically by refugees fleeing the escalating conflicts in the Middle East (Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan) and the Horn of Africa (Somalia) in the same decade.

Then, as Figure 1 also shows, the numbers started to decrease after 2000. The turmoil in the Middle East subsided temporarily, as, in 2001, Afghanistan was invaded by American troops who forced the Taliban to retreat, while Hamid Karzai entered office following free elections in 2004. A new consti- tution followed, and for a few years, peace appeared possible. Approximately five million refugees were repatriated after 2002, some forcibly from Western countries such as Germany. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was chased out in 2003,

Figure 1. Number of asylum seekers in Europe (1960–2016). Source: http://www.unhcr. org/statistics/STATISTICS/3c3eb40f4.pdf;; http://; 832/3-04032016-AP-EN.pdf/;;


and an international coalition was installed to stabilize Iraq. After the Ameri- cans departed in 2011, however, the Iraqi state largely collapsed, enabling the rise of IS and once again causing large numbers to flee the country.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, occupation by troops from the United States and other nations, therefore, did not bring long-term stability, and violence and chaos prevailed after 2010. This coincided with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2013. The consequences included an all-time high of 1.3 million asylum seekers in the EU in 2015: one million whom came from outside Europe and the remainder from the Balkans. As Figure 2 shows, however, the recent numbers are not that exceptional, and whether the second decade of the twenty-first century surpasses the record of 4.2 million in the 1990s remains to be seen.

The fact that the presentation in Figure 2 differs from Figure 1 is explained by the logarithmic presentation, which is necessary to make the trend of Hungary visible. Due to the small numbers of Hungary (and the very large numbers of Germany), a normal presentation as in Figure 1 would make the trends of most countries invisible. Only in Germany and Sweden did the numbers for 2015 clearly exceed the annual highs from the 1990s.

In seeking to explain the current extreme reactions, we should perhaps focus less on the numbers than on the composition of the asylum seekers and especially on the share of Muslims among them. In the 1990s, the refu- gees tended to be perceived as predominantly Europeans fleeing the

Figure 2. Logarithmic presentation of asylum seeker numbers in seven European states (1984–2016). Source: see Figure 1.


Yugoslav Civil War, whereas nowadays, Muslims from the Middle East and Africa account for the bulk of refugees. Among the asylum seekers in the 1990s, former Yugoslavs did indeed figure prominently, with Bosnians (who happen to be Muslims as well) in the majority. On the whole, however, these European refugees constituted a minority back then. In recent years, migrants from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia have joined asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa in large numbers (approximately 300,000 in 2015), most heading for Germany. The next figure, based on the origin of asylum applicants in twelve European countries,3 shows that already in the 1990s most asylum seekers came from regions in other continents, especially the Middle East Asia and the Horn of Africa.

The final argument often invoked against admitting asylum seekers at present is that Western European countries are still having great difficulties integrating the refugees from the 1990s and have not yet, in a manner of speaking, “digested” the millions of other Muslims, especially because they remain hostile to the core European values of democracy, separation of church and state, gender equality, acceptance of homosexuality and freedom of speech. Apart from the fact that many Europeans (not in the least in e.g. Hungary and Poland) do not wholeheartedly subscribe to such liberal values either, longitudinal research shows that most refugees from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan who came to the Netherlands in the 1990s generally do support these values and in this sense have adapted relatively quickly, while their children do quite well at school (Dour- leijn and Muller 2011; Engbersen and Dagevos 2015; Maliepaard, Witkamp, and Jennissen 2017).

Figure 3. Origin of asylum seekers in twelve European countries 1990–2015. Source: UNHCR 2001 and following yearbooks.


Finally, the argument that “we ain’t seen nothing yet” holds that due to high rates of fertility, poverty and environmental degradation in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa poor countries will “empty out” in the coming decades (to use Collier’s (2013) term) and will try to jump ship, unless the EU fortifies its borders even more. The problem with this argument is that it does not align with the facts. As the following table shows, in recent years, the bulk of asylum seekers has come from four circumscribed conflict areas: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa (Somalia and Eritrea). The share of West and North Africans is negligible, whereas the number of West African migrants trying to reach Italy through irregular means in 2015 constituted 0.08 per cent of the total Sub-Saharan population and 0.04 per cent of the population of the EU, not exactly emptying out.

While the combination of high fertility rates and poverty does not guaran- tee higher migration to Europe, migration and demographics research suggests a different scenario. First, the “emptying out” thesis of Paul Collier in his book Exodus (2013) is not supported by facts but is purely a suggestive imagery devoid of any awareness that people do not migrate without a second thought. Moving requires money, contacts and some guarantee that their risky adventure is viable. While thousands of young men (in any case more than women) may believe that European streets are paved with gold and want desperately to board a boat in Libya or Morocco, they are a very small minority (Flahaux and de Haas 2016). Moreover, as recent research on Sub-Sahara migrants to Libya shows, 80 per cent of them have no intention whatsoever to go to Europe and are circulatory labour migrants looking for

Figure 4. Origin of first-time asylum seekers in the EU (July 2014–June 2016). Source: Eurostat.


job in North Africa (Molenaar and El Kamouni-Janssen 2017). As for the fertility thesis, birth rates in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa have decreased considerably since the 1970s (Groth and Sousa-Poza 2012). As we saw above, the percentage of West Africans among the irregular migrants coming to the EU may have increased somewhat in the past years; especially in Italy, they constitute a very small fraction of the population at risk in Sub- Sahara Africa.

At this point, we may conclude that the highly negative reactions to asylum seekers in the past few years cannot be attributed to their numbers, their countries of origin or the failure to integrate on the part of previous groups, who in a manner of speaking might have spoiled prospects for the current ones. Nor are predictions about poor countries “emptying out” in Africa and Asia supported by facts. This raises the question as to what has changed since the 1990s. Below, I will discuss five key differences that together offer a more convincing explanation, starting with the much greater visibility of and media attention to asylum seekers.

Visibility and the construction of fortress Europe

One reason why politicians, journalists, commentators and scholars have embraced the idea that the EU is under siege by millions of downtrodden migrants from other continents is that migrants and asylum seekers became far more visible in the 2010s. Whereas in the 1990s most simply crossed borders over land in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, often travel- ling by bus, train or even airplane, such border crossings progressively became more difficult and have been replaced by risky travel routes across the sea, to the Greek islands, Lampedusa and other Italian shores. The prevail- ing idea that in the process of enlargement and enabling internal freedom of movement the EU has forgotten to protect its outer borders is therefore less convincing than it might initially seem (Jeandesbosz 2015). This argument can even be reversed: in the late 1980s and 1990s, especially after the disinte- gration of the Eastern block, borders were much more porous than nowadays, because countries in Eastern Europe – as well as Turkey – did virtually nothing to stop Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalis and others from transiting their ter- ritory. In 1993, this changed, when the EU adopted a new policy of protecting and controlling its outer borders that had major consequences for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Rather than fortifying the external borders with fences, gates and barbed wire, the policy served to bring about a far more effective paper barrier. The basic idea had already developed in the United States in the early nineteenth century and was labelled “remote control” by Zolberg (2006, 110–113). Over the course of a century, a full-fledged bureaucratic system came about, coordinated by a federal visa office in Washington, DC, building on earlier experiences restricting Chinese


(1882) and other Asians (McKeown 2008). With the 1917 Immigration Act, pro- spective migrants were checked not only upon entry in the United States but already at the points of embarkation, at that time the major harbour cities in Europe (Hamburg, Liverpool, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Naples) by American consular officers or employees of shipping companies. In the summer of that same year, the United States followed the example of Germany, France and Great Britain: pursuant to a joint order by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Secretary of Labor William Wilson, aliens coming to the United States had to present passports containing valid visas before embarkation (Zolberg 2006, 240–241).

The entry into force of the Convention on Controls on Persons Crossing External Frontiers on 1 November 1993 was based on the same principle and required people from almost all countries in Asia and Africa to apply for a visa prior to leaving their country.4 Without such a visa, carriers (airlines, as well as shipping and bus companies) refused to take passengers on board, as they risked high fines and were forced to return passengers to their point of departure. This new EU visa policy served mainly to deter unskilled migrants and to keep the number of asylum seekers as low as possible. The policy took quite a while to implement and for years lacked any visible effect; slowly, it changed the migration dynamics of asylum seekers and other migrants deemed ineligible for an entry visa.

The main result of the visa requirement was that those who wanted to request asylum or find irregular or other work in the EU became increasingly dependent on human smugglers who charged high fees for taking them across borders, hiding them in trucks at first and later increasingly resorting to boats. Data on border deaths in the Mediterranean suggest a substantial surge after 2000, and especially from 2013 onwards, although it needs to be stressed that the various NGOs and scholars who have gathered these data depend to a large extent on (shifting) media attention for people dying at Europe’s borders (Last and Spijkerboer 2014; Last et al. 2017). So, although the data on border deaths should be dealt with prudence, it is inter- esting to note that while total applications for asylum decreased sharply after 2000, the number of deaths soared, suggesting a growing dependence of asylum seekers and other migrants on smugglers and sea routes.

Shipping asylum seekers by boat in the Mediterranean already started in the 1990s, when most recorded deaths occurred in the Adriatic Sea between Albania and Italy, after the regime change in 1991, and again during the anarchy caused by the implosion of Ponzi schemes six years later.5 On 8 August 1991, the freighter Vlora arrived unexpectedly in the Bari harbour, carrying between ten and twenty thousand Albanians, and a mass exodus got under way. According to the Italian census of 2001, this exodus by sea resulted in approximately 700,000 Albanians settling there, increasing to about a million around 2004 (almost a third of the total Albanian


population) (King and Mai 2008, 65). Albanians dying en route to Italy were recorded until the turn of the century but were soon surpassed by deaths in the Western (Morocco–Spain) and Central Mediterranean areas (Libya– Italy). Some incidents were covered extensively, such as the small ship that sank between Malta and the Strait of Sicily in December 1996, carrying 283 young male migrants from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka (Carter 2013, 62).

The first record of migrants drowning between Turkey and Greece is from 1998, when on 31 December nine people from Kurdistan died in the Aegean. Incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean would multiply, as Kos, Lesbos and other islands became destinations of smugglers, carrying asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Others were killed in minefields or drowned in the Evros, which separates Turkey from Greece.

Other signs that regular entries became difficult include hundreds of reported deaths of people trying to cross border rivers in the 1990s, especially the Neisse and Oder at the Polish–German border, as well as the Danube, Morava, Tisza and Sava rivers in Eastern and Central Europe. Others were killed in minefields in the border area between Greece and Turkey, including a couple of Iraqi men on 30 June 1996. Finally, migrants hid in trucks, which in several cas Plagiarism Free Papers

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