Rise of anti-immigrant parties compounds problems for Europe’s Muslims

Men pray in the ‘jungle,’ the migrant and refugee camp in Calais, northern France, in 2016, a year after Europe’s refugee crisis peaked. (AFP)
Updated 28 July 2019

Rise of anti-immigrant parties compounds problems for Europe’s Muslims

  • Constructive debate on pluralism, migrants and asylum seekers delayed by continent's rightward lurch
  • European Muslims and migrant communities left on uncertain ground by political gains made by rightwing parties

ABU DHABI: The seemingly unstoppable rise of anti-establishment political forces in recent years has added a new layer of complication to Europe’s immigration question. 

The results of May’s European Parliament elections revealed the true extent of the popularity of far-right, nationalist parties, all but ruling out constructive debates on the politically sensitive topic of migrants and asylum seekers as well as the grievances of minority groups, of whom Muslims happen to be the most prominent.

The gains made by right-wing and populist nationalist parties in the European Parliament elections have left Muslims of European countries and the (mostly Muslim) communities of migrants and refugees on uncertain ground. In the absence of political will to engage with the communities concerned, it is difficult to see how the EU can address both the migrant issue and the Muslim question in a fair manner.

For the first time in 40 years, previously dominant center-right and center-left blocs no longer hold a majority in the European Parliament. Centrist parties have suffered political reverses across all member states, especially in their traditional strongholds of Germany and France. Migration has turned out to be a decisive factor — and the bane of the continent’s established political parties — from the refugee crisis of 2015 all the way to this year’s elections.

Even European countries that had long been seen as reliable bastions of centrist politics failed to defy the upsurge of populist nationalism. UKIP grabbed 31.7 percent of votes cast in Britain in the European Parliament elections, while in France the far-right National Rally took 23.2 percent. In Italy, the Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, won 33.43 percent, up from a mere 6.2 percent in the 2014 elections. Elsewhere in Europe, Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which vowed to further tighten the country’s rules on migration, rolled up impressive gains with 52 percent.

Despite steadily decreasing arrivals to Europe and a substantial difference in the “immigration and asylum” situation between 2015 and 2019, many European governments remain deadlocked on a planned revision of the EU’s immigration policy. In March 2019, EU interior ministers attending a European Council meeting tried but failed to iron out their differences, kicking the immigration can further down the road.

In the popular imagination, hostility to immigrants and asylum seekers is associated with Europe’s far-right groups, but the general tenor of the continent’s political discourse points to a hardening of positions across the spectrum. In recent times, especially during the election season, mainstream political parties and their stalwarts have taken to fear-mongering and touting harsh measures to limit or dissuade migration.

Violence against Muslims reached a peak in the run-up to the enactment of the anti-hijab laws in several European countries. Austria approved a hijab ban in primary schools, while the French Senate voted to ban mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying their children on school trips. In 2018, up to 580 anti-Muslim attacks took place in Germany alone.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been among the few European leaders to welcome large numbers of political refugees, but even she now says some of the migration policies are problematic. The growing appeal of anti-immigrant parties could be a factor behind the new-found necessity of politicians of even Merkel’s stature to sound tough on immigration. Whatever the real reason, such rhetoric does little to address the underlying problems, much less to resolve them.

“There are ongoing policies against Muslims (in Europe). Since 2008, we have seen the rise of populism — not only right-wing but also left-wing populism,” said Belgium’s Mahinur Ozdemir, the youngest and the first hijab-wearing member of the European Parliament. “Traditional parties, as they become unable to answer the people’s needs through traditional ways, instead of getting more democratized, get more populist and grasp racist rhetoric.”

Ironically, the change in the political rhetoric has coincided with a sharp fall in the number of migrants and refugees making it to the continent’s shores. In January 2019, arrivals to Europe were at their lowest in five years; the peak was reached during the 2015 refugee crisis with more than 1 million arrivals. In the first three months of 2019, applications for just over 10,200 refugees were submitted by the UNHCR for resettlement in 17 EU member states.

According to the UNHCR, this is one-third of the total applications submitted in 2018, and 60 percent of the average rate of 16,960 applications per year during the previous 10 years. Since the beginning of 2019, six EU countries — Germany, Sweden, France, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands — have received 81 percent of all resettlement applications. 

In the run-up to the European Council meeting in March, the European Commission (EC) reviewed the progress made since the 2015 refugee crisis. Frans Timmermans, the EC’s first vice president, noted that “while the EU is no longer experiencing the migration crisis, there are structural problems within its policies that ought to be urgently addressed in moving forward.”


PARTY POSITIONS

• European People’s Party: Tighter border controls, quicker repatriation

Party of European Socialists: Safe paths to fight irregular migration

Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists for Europe:  Migration is a national matter

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe: Outsourcing to third countries

European Left: Legal paths and cooperation

Greens: Fair asylum policy, European sea-rescue missions


The Dutch diplomat’s statement could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of a lack of consistency in Europe’s immigration policy, with talk of safe passage, human rights and greater cooperation going hand in hand with a regime of tighter border controls. Between the two extremes, there are some political parties that are eager to export the continent’s migration problems to third countries, with the controversial Malta agreement between Italy and Libya’s Government of National Accord serving as a viable template.

None of this is to say that attempts to address what Timmermans called “structural problems” are doomed to failure. For all the ethnic cleansing, genocide and institutional discrimination to which Muslims of Europe have been subjected since the outbreak of brutal wars in the former Yugoslavia, Islam is deeply woven into Europe’s tapestry of many different religions. Since the end of World War II, vibrant new Muslim communities came into existence as a result of guest-worker programs and the arrival of people fleeing political persecution.

The countries that have taken in the largest number of Muslim refugees all happen to have a thriving network of Muslim civic organizations and youth platforms. Platforms catering to the needs of Muslims set up by young European Muslims, such as the London-based the Muslim Vibe, Brussels-based Mvslim.com and Paris-based Oumma.com, are trying to give a voice to the European Muslim community, including Muslim refugees. These platforms see themselves as being run by staff who are representative of their audience and conscious of the growing presence of Muslim communities in Europe in all fields except policy-making.

A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 underscored the respect that Muslims have for Europe’s democratic institutions. Muslim respondents are likely, sometimes more likely than the general public, to  express confidence in official institutions. For instance, two-thirds of Muslims in London (64 percent) said they had confidence in the UK government, compared with just 36 percent of the British public. At the same time, Muslims in three of the Europe’s largest capitals (69 percent in London, 66 percent in Paris, 87 percent in Berlin) felt that their communities should be more involved in politics.

Yet, political representation remains woefully unrepresentative of the Muslim population’s size, needs and expectations. In the European Parliament, there were only seven Muslim MEPs out of 751 before the May elections. Such poor political representation of the continent’s second-largest religious group would seem shocking in itself. But it looks even more unjustifiable considering that Muslims are expected to make up more than 4 percent of Europe’s population by 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.

The political landscape after the European Parliament elections reveals the polarization of society between non-Muslim and Muslim Europeans in many countries. Until now, EU members have managed to get away with treating the vexing immigration question in the same way as the Muslim question — by avoiding it. But it is past time for European governments to appreciate the diversity of Muslim views and issues and treat the community as trusted partners. While Muslims have certainly not introduced pluralism to Europe, their presence is a stark reminder of the continent’s failure to practice it.


Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

Updated 13 min 56 sec ago

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

  • People are dying, not from the war, but the toxic air they breathe in
  • Research group State of Global Air says more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed due to the pollution

KABUL, Afghanistan: Yousuf fled with his family from his home in eastern Afghanistan eight years ago to escape the war, but he couldn’t escape tragedy. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty.
At the camp for displaced people they live in, they and other families keep warm and cook by burning the garbage that surrounds them. One by one over the years, each of the children got chest infections and other maladies from the pollution and never made it to age seven, he told The Associated Press. The 60-year-old has nine surviving children.

Yusouf, who escaped war in eastern Afghanistan to safeguard his family, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

“We didn’t have enough money for the doctor and medicine ... I can barely feed my children,” said Yousuf, who works as a porter in a vegetable market earning barely a dollar a day. Like many Afghans he uses only one name.
Afghanistan’s pollution may be even deadlier than its war, now 18 years long.
There are no official statistics on how many Afghans die of pollution-related illnesses, but the research group State of Global Air said more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed to it in 2017. In contrast, 3,483 civilians were killed that year in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations.
Kabul, a city of some 6 million, has become one of the most polluted cities in the world — ranking in the top of the list among other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Decades of war have wrecked the city’s infrastructure and caused waves of displaced people.
On most days, a pall of smog and smoke lies over the city. Old vehicles pump toxins into the air, as do electrical generators using poor quality fuel. Coal, garbage, plastic and rubber are burned by poor people at home, as well as at the many brick kilns, public baths and bakeries. Many apartment buildings have no proper sanitation system, and garbage is piled on roadsides and sidewalks.
The large majority of victims are poisoned by the air in their own homes, as families burn whatever they can to keep warm in Kabul’s winters, with frequent sub-zero temperatures and snow. Children and elderly are particularly vulnerable. At least 19,400 of the 2017 deaths were attributable to household pollution, which also contributed to a loss of two years and two months of life expectancy at birth, according to the State of Global Air survey.

Old vehicles are pumping poisonous fumes into the air. (AFP)

Yousuf’s camp, home to more than a hundred families, has no proper water or sanitation system and is surrounded by garbage dumps. His and other families’ children search through the garbage for paper, cloth, sticks or plastic, anything that can be burned for fuel.
“We are so poor, and we have lots of problems, we don’t have enough money for medicine, wood or coal for heating, so this is our life, my children collect garbage from dump yards and we use it for cooking and heating to keep the kids warm,” he added.
Decades of war have worsened the damage to Afghanistan’s environment and have made it a huge challenge to address them. Environmental issues are far down the list of priorities for a government struggling with basic security issues, rampant corruption and a plunging economy.
Three or four decades ago, “it was a wish for people to come to Kabul and breath this air,” said Ezatullah Sediqi, deputy director for the National Environmental Protection Agency. But in the wars since, “we lost all our urban infrastructure for water, electricity, public transportation, green areas, all these things,” he said.
Kabul’s environmental department has launched a new program to control old vehicles, one significant source of pollution.
“Fighting pollution is an important as fighting terrorism,” said Mohammad Kazim Humayoun, the department’s director.
Authorities warn that this winter is expected to be colder than usual and fear that will only increase the use of pollution-creating fuels to keep warm. The Kabul municipality has also called on residents to stop burning garbage for heat and instead use fuel.

The wife of Yousuf who fled from their home in eastern Afghanistan, burns plastic to make tea at a camp for displaced people, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP /Rahmat Gul)

“If everyone follows the instructions laid out by Kabul Municipality, the pollution could be controlled,” the municipality’s spokeswoman, Nargis Mohmand, said. But if not, “then we might live with this untreatable wound for years to come.”
But fuel is either too expensive or not available for many in Kabul. Electrical heaters are too pricey for most, and power outages are frequent.
Doctors at Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital say they’ve seen the numbers of patients with pollution-related illnesses increase, though they could not give exact figures. In the winter, hundreds of children a day sometimes come in, suffering from respiratory illnesses, according to hospital officials.
Dr. Saifullah Abassin, a specialist trainer at the hospital, said his ward has a capacity of 10 patients but often has three times that number.
The government has launched an environmental awareness campaign. Ads on TV, programs at schools and universities and sermons at mosques talk about pollution’s harm to society and tell listeners about steps to reduce it.
But there are steps the state needs to take, like encouraging the planting of trees and creating green spaces, as well as implementing a city master plan to stop unplanned development around the capital, often a source of pollution because of their lack of services.
Sediqi, of the NEPA, said that ever since the first post-Taliban government was created in 2001, there was no planning on urban infrastructure, which left individuals to build on their own.
“Unfortunately, that led to unplanned development,” he said. “So now we have numerous urban problems and challenges and organizational challenges, which is causing the environmental pollution.”