Across Europe, the economic crisis is driving communities to deep desperation, and the people who were always at the margins are getting pushed straight off the edge.
Under misguided austerity policies, unemployment has reached devastating levels in the euro zone--reaching 12 percent across the region and topping 50 percent for youth in Spain and Greece. But some communities are sinking faster than others. Struggling migrant communities--both economic immigrants and refugees--are more neglected by the state's social infrastructure than ever, while their native-born neighbors turn against them in a rash of xenophobic scapegoating.
Greece, which has long been a hub of immigration from Asia, Middle East and Africa, has become a cesspool of bigotry. According to a December report by Amnesty International, “Asylum-seekers, migrants, community centers, shops and mosques have been the target of such attacks which have been reported on an almost daily basis since the summer.”
Last September, an attack on a Pakistani-run barber shop showed how racism intersects with inhumane immigration policies:
The two men verbally attacked the Greek customer who was present for having a haircut in a shop owned by Pakistanis and stabbed him when he reacted. Then they started destroying the shop and throwing Molotov cocktails. The police came to investigate the incident and arrested two Pakistani nationals because they had no documents. In October, they were both in detention, pending deportation.
Meanwhile, dysfunctional European Union border policies leave Greece, due to its geography, bearing the brunt of the responsibility to absorb immigrants. Amnesty researchers found that many asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria flee to the Greek border, but instead of finding refuge they languish in detention under poor overcrowded conditions, while their claims wend through a broken, under-resourced bureaucracy.
The mistreatment of Greece's migrant workers and asylum seekers reflects the economic injustices facing all working people in a state that has mortgaged its democracy for a neoliberal austerity program. With Greece's economy expected to contract another 4 percent in the coming year, the misery continues to deepen.
Much of Greece's most brutal xenophobic violence is affiliated with Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist-associated movement known for mob harassment and beatings of migrants. Yet Greek police appear sympathetic to the Golden Dawn. The Guardian reported in October that police responded to clashes at an anti-fascist protest in Athens by detaining, abusing and torturing a group of protesters. Earlier reports suggested that police may be aiding Golden Dawn by intimidating people into “donating” to the group’s local charity programs. Whether or not the police are directly partnering with fascists, there’s no doubt that the state and the extreme Right are aligned in their vicious attacks on immigrants.
During Greece's economic collapse, Golden Dawn has gained broader popularity with the public and even won some parliamentary seats in recent elections. The group deftly exploits the public’s despair by “advocating the ousting of foreigners as “the only way to solve unemployment, poverty and criminality,” writes Amalia Loizidou in Socialism Today:
Golden Dawn’s electoral success in 2010 was the result of consistent local campaigns it had launched in the deprived neighborhoods. Whose fault is it, they endlessly asked, that these areas are deprived? Whose fault is it that there is such extreme poverty, unemployment, criminality, and no hope for the future? Its answer, of course, is to blame immigrants and foreigners, not the big-business bosses or capitalists. On the basis of this propaganda, Golden Dawn intervened in schools. It went petitioning. It went door to door and organised demonstrations. This was the way it built its electoral profile and recruited supporters.
The idea that immigration poses an economic threat is a political fiction (research shows that immigration is vital to Europe's economic functioning, even in times of job scarcity). However, failed immigration policies do have harmful human-rights consequences.
According to John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia program director, efforts to tighten immigration restrictions and militarize Europe's borders have, as in the United States, deepened the humanitarian crisis. “Rather than halting irregular migration, such policies reconfigure mobility flows and make migration routes more dangerous and difficult," he explains. "They also contribute to making smuggling a more lucrative business.” Across the EU, Dalhuisen adds, “There is an urgent need to reverse policies which criminalize migrants and address the wide-spread anti-immigration political rhetoric which contributes to making migrants unwelcome, if not the outright target of xenophobic attack.”
Once migrants make it into Europe, their systematic disenfranchisement enables severe labor exploitation that hurts all workers. Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in politics at King’s College London, tells ITT via email that however political attitudes toward migrants may fluctuate, migration flows are essentially linked to demand for cheap labor. At the same time, improving labor conditions can help alleviate the erosion of jobs and wages and by extension help rebalance a global labor market rife with exploitation:
Since the politics of control is bound to be ineffective because migration flows de facto cannot be totally stopped, it seems that the only effective way is to ensure fair working and salary conditions for all, including migrants, through work standards compliance, enforced minimum wages, in order to prevent exploitation practices.
Though such reforms are more vital than ever, the gutted social infrastructure has left compassion in short supply. The epidemic abuse of migrants is a symptom of social degradation precipitated by austerity. One group of dispossessed falls into a spiral of racial invective and xenophobia aimed at another, instead of forming a collective uprising against the real threat: an elite that has bled civil society dry and left the poor to cannibalize themselves.