For weeks now the so-called “Migrants Crisis” has dominated headlines in Europe. While I traveled across the continent a few weeks ago it was a top story again and again in the UK, Sweden, and Denmark, with headlines blaring out from airport and railway newsagents’ in a dozen languages. But it has garnered considerably less attention in the United States until very recently. As I write this, a stunningly tragic picture, one of those pieces of photojournalism that defines an era, is now blasted across the top of the Huffington Post website: a Turkish police officer carrying the limp body of a drowned boy from a resort beach Wednesday morning.
Death stretches across the Mediterranean and into Europe’s mountainous interior. Refugees, many fleeing from Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s ISIS-fuelled violence, were found dead by the dozens in the back of a truck in Austria. More had to be taken to a local hospital after another overcrowded vehicle was found by Austrian police. Hundreds die annually trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, thousands more are now caught in the vertiginous limbo of refugee life in impromptu camps in Calais, France, near the mouth of the Eurotunnel, and throughout the Balkans.
As I write, hundreds of refugees are camped inside a Budapest train station, many of them are ticket-holders but are being blocked by police from boarding any westward bound trains. Desperate refugees have clashed with often abusive riot police firing tear gas into crowds of people that include children and the ill throughout the southeastern EU, from Greece through Macedonia to Hungary. Many of the refugees wish to push on to Northern European countries.
But the reaction has, obviously, been an embittered one, and the image of non-white refugees as a crowd seeking access to European states has created no small measure of panic on the far right. We are now seeing an apotheosis of cruelty in Europe, including repeated firebombing of asylum-seeker hostels in Germany, and mass slander perpetrated on the refugees and migrants at Calais by the British media — aggression which is only now beginning to be met with organized displays of humanity and kindness, such as a crowd of well-wishers greeting a train full of refugees in Vienna.
This deserves the full attention of American feminists.
Much of the racist rhetoric directed at this new stream of migrants and refugees is entirely of a piece with the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment that has accompanied the improbable rise of Donald Trump as a Republican presidential candidate. Indeed, his resonance with a violently angry core of American Nativism is, I would argue, part of the same phenomenon as the success of the UK Independence Party in Britain, Jobbik in Hungary, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark.
Liberal democracy is being profoundly tested at this moment in our history; we’ve become so inured to the spectacle of hysterical bigotry on rolling news that we may be taking a gradual coarsening for granted. Much of the fire behind Britain’s renewed push to break away from the European Union has to do with the (false) idea that EU-wide human rights infrastructure is preventing Britain from “securing its borders.” Meanwhile the far right is on the march in countries like France and Sweden. Closing borders and hardening hearts seems to be what one grim chorus in Europe is calling for.
At the same time, back across the Atlantic, Canada, which has been lumbered with a conservative government for years, has been turning the screws on its immigrants and making it ever more difficult to obtain Canadian citizenship. In addition, the nation has opened a terrifying legal Pandora’s Box by passing C-24 which, among other things, creates a two-tiered citizenship system whereby Canadian citizens who are dual-citizens or had immigrated to Canada can have their citizenship revoked at any time by the government.
The fight against immigrants and the fear of a world with looser or (heaven forfend) open borders is increasingly a global phenomenon (I haven’t even mentioned the slow-motion tragedy of Australia’s militaristic approach to asylum seekers).
But there is an example that I conclude this SOS with.
The Öresundståg is a remarkable train that speeds across the five mile long span of the Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden. It is as much an inspiring civic ideal as it is a feat of engineering. After a conference in Malmö, Sweden, I hopped on the train to Copenhagen to spend a long weekend before flying home, riding between two separate countries with different languages and cultures, as easily as if I were taking the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan, and in the same amount of time (approximately 35 minutes).
No immigration control or passports checked, no humiliating security theater, just a free flow of people and ideas between nations. On the train I saw families speaking a variety of languages — Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, Arabic, Swedish — and people speaking Nordic languages who were non-white. Backpackers, professionals, families young and old. Muslims, Christians, atheists, and at least one witch.
It puts the march of the far right in Europe into perspective, and the recent success of racist parties in both Denmark and Sweden into stark relief. Targets were painted on the backs of so many people I saw on that train, on the idea that the train represented, even.
This is by no means to gloss over the real challenges that these many people may face; New York City’s diversity does not, after all, absolve this city or its leaders of ongoing struggles with racism and police brutality, for instance. But there is something beautiful in the idea that so many diverse people were able to move from one country to the next without so much as a glance at documentation. Somewhere over the Oresund lay the spirit of free movement; there were no hordes, no lawlessness, no crime or vulgarity, just people in motion riding towards the sunset in another land, denuded of mystery and magic, woven into the fabric of their everyday lives.
That is as it should be, and it is an ideal we should recognize as being threatened worldwide. The days for liberals to look to Europe and Canada as secure harbingers of a progressive future are well and truly over, and we must raise our voices in defense of the ideals we claim to hold dear, athwart parochialism and chauvinism.
Header image credit: Wikipedia