Systemic racism in European migration politics?

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In 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by four officers from the Minneapolis police department in the United States, a debate concerning systemic racism in the American police made international headlines. It quickly expanded to encompass the reality systemic racism as such, spreading to Europe and confronting nations allegedly incorporating structural racism that devalues black lives.

A debate about systemic racism emerged again this year after Russia invaded Ukraine, causing what is being referred to as the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two. As Ukrainian refugees started to flee their homes into neighboring countries, the European Union activated the temporary protection directive, giving them special and temporary protection. Shortly after, accounts of racial discriminations at border crossings were broadcasted, and journalists from international news agencies who were in the border areas ensured us that the reasons why they were so sympathetic and willing to help Ukrainian refugees were because they were ‘“white,” “intelligent,” “educated,” “civilized,” “middle-class,” “well-dressed” and, most importantly, unlike refugees from “Iraq or Afghanistan.”. Naturally, a debate concerning systemic racism in European asylum policies once again filled European news columns.

In an issue on cultural genocide, one might ask why I bring up a debate on systemic racism in European migration policies. I do it because, even though ‘not-seeing-colors’ or color-blindness is viewed as a virtue in Norway, recent research indicates that Norwegians probably have more racist prejudice than they like to think. And even if a cultural genocide is not likely to take place in Western Europe anytime soon, this shows how, even in liberal Europe, some human lives are systematically devalued. Furthermore, it shows how easily racist prejudice, intentional or unintentional, can inform politics.


Double standards

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, 7 million Ukrainians have fled the country, seeking refuge in European nations. Soon after, the EU activated the temporary protection directive, meaning that member countries ought to provide Ukrainian refugees with immediate and temporary protection. The collective protection scheme ensured that Ukrainian refugees were given access to residence permit and were able to join the local labor force and housing market as soon as they arrive. It also gave them access to medical care, as well as education for children whenever practically possible. Before we move on, I would like to  make one thing clear: the way European nations have received and supported Ukrainian refugees is a superb example of how people fleeing war, terror and persecution should be met. The EU temporary protection directive ensured a dignified reception of refugees, which honors the humanitarian commitment most European nations took upon themselves when they signed and ratified the 1951 Geneva convention.

Dignity and solidarity are unfortunately not words that come to mind when I am asked to consider European migration policies. Because the way in which refugees are often met at other places in Europe is very different. Along border land crossings all throughout, Europe refugees and migrants are met with walls, barbed wire and threatening border guards. From the many refugee camps lining the EU border, the accounts of refugees being starved, beaten, and denied access to proper health care are so frequent that they rarely make the news, and we consequently no longer bat an eyelash.

In the Mediterranean Sea, Middle eastern and African refugees are forced to risk their lives in flimsy dinghiesand overcrowded rotting boats in attempts to seek asylum in Europe. Not only does this highlight the lack of safe refugee routes, but it also demonstrates that the aggressive and violent migration policies adopted by European nations are equally widespread at sea.

The Mediterranean route has in fact become one of the deadliest refugee routes, largely due to illegal pushbacks of refugee boats carried out by Italian, Greek, Maltese, and Libyan coast guards as well as by the European border- and coast guard agency Frontex.

This double standard made me and my colleagues claim that Ukrainian refugees and other groups of refugees were treated differently as a consequence of systemic and cultural racism ingrained in European migration policies.


Cultural and systemic racism

To understand exactly how this is a consequence of racism, one first needs to acknowledge that racism, contrary to many Norwegians´ beliefs, is not just an individual prejudice – it is also a structural and institutional problem. Racism is more than the traditional and narrow definition of discrimination based on physical characteristics such as skin color. Racism also encompasses prejudice and discrimination for cultural and religious reasons. Secondly, one must acknowledge how liberal Europe assumes that the freedom and safety of citizens in European states is dependent upon control and exclusion of non-western and predominately non-white people. The philosopher Achille Mbembe referred to is as Necropolitics, building on Foucault concept of ‘biological racism’, which he describes as the capacity to dictate who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not. Under such circumstances, governments have taken it upon themselves to assign different values to lives. One consequence of this assumption is an unjust global refugee regime that allows Europeans to move relativity freely, whilst people from the global south are subject to severe constraints and criminalisation.

Furthermore, the difference in how Ukrainian refugees and other groups of refugees were referred to and treated uncovered a form of cultural racism. And what is cultural racism? Professor Tony Burner definesCultural racism as ‘As soon as someone claims that others don’t belong here or reject them from a group as a consequence of their ethnicity, culture or religion, we are dealing with a racist frame of reference’ [my translation]. In a more recent work, Christopher Bratt has investigated whether Europeans are racist if they maintain that some cultures are superior to others. His research considers whether modern racism as it exists in Europe today, is expressed as a belief in cultural superiority. Put more bluntly, is the belief that one’s culture is superior to another a sign of modern racism? Bratt found that two out of three Norwegians believe that some cultures are superior to others, and although he does not want to conclude that two out of three Norwegians are ’proper racist[s]’, he has in an interview reasoned that Norwegians probably have more racist prejudices that they like to think.

The opposite side of the debate claimed that Ukrainian refugees are treated differently, not due to systemic or structural racism, but because they are more culturally proximal and geographically closer to European nations than for instance the Middle East and the African continent. This, it is argued, makes them more relatable and easier to integrate. Whilst my colleagues and I believe that Tony Burner, too, would define this as an indication of cultural racism, others claimed that it is both natural and right.

It is at this point important to highlight that people’s tendency to group people together is not necessarily a form of racism. Any perceived differences between groups are enough to develop prejudice and in some cases hostility towards other groups. Racism is a form of prejudice, but prejudice is not always racist.

Systemic racism is very problematic in its own right. However, it is even more problematic considering what it can lead to. In an article from 2020, The Sentinel Project, a Canadian non-profit organisation that works detects early signs of, and avert genocide, draw attention to the dangers of systemic racism. System racism can, in worst case, lead to genocide.

It is important for me to make a distinction here. I am in no way saying that the discrimination caused by systemic racism in other refugee groups compared to Ukrainian refugees is an early sign of an upcoming genocide. That would quite frankly be absurd. However, the concept of systemic racism can lead to genocide. According to United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ‘laws, policies, and practices that display systemic discrimination based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin may potentially result in violent conflict and genocide’.


Experienced proximity as an ethical guideline

The notion that systemic racism can be a precursor for genocide is a violently uncomfortable thought. To be aware of such connections, much like the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and The Sentinel Project, one must think a thought all the way through. Personally, I like to think that discrimination of different groups, or most forms of prejudice or racism it a product of not thinking of the consequences of one’s attitudes and actions all the way through. A Norwegian, let’s call him Greg, I once interviewed for a research project described how his initial big skepticism against asylum seekers and refugees was due to his lack of knowledge about ‘who those people were’. He had simply not thought it through what it would be like to suddenly have to leave a whole life behind in pursuit of safety for oneself and one’s family. In 2015, when refugees suddenly arrived in his hometown in Norway, he saw for himself how these refugees were nothing more than fellow human being who were victims of war, terror, or prosecution. This fundamentally changed his view on refugees and asylum seekers, and he is now an active adamant advocate for refugee rights and global solidarity.

What drove Greg to change his view on refugees and asylum seekers was his proximity to the refugees and asylum seekers. The polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman famously stated that ‘morality begins at home’, locating his views on basic ethical demand in the relationship between a human I and a thou (the other). Indeed, empathy and empathic affective response most frequently occurs in face-to-face situations, and in relational proximity. Simply put, people tend to feel more empathy, and be more willing to help if they can see and relate to the person (or animal for that matter) who is suffering.

Even so, proximity is not a straightforward case. Especially when it is used as an argument for why European migration policies treat different groups of refugees differently. Many of the people I have spoken to in my research on volunteering in humanitarian crises feel equal or more proximity with people living in refugee camps across the European continent than they do with people who live in their community and share their cultural background. The people in these camps might have a different skin color or speak a different language, but they share hopes, dreams, humor, values, and the desire that their children can grow up in a safe environment. Some of the biggest advocates for liberal and democratic values, virtues held high in European liberal democracies are people I have met who are stranded on the wrong side of European borders.

Proximity, as far as I am concerned, is experienced; it is not absolute. The assumption that refugees – who don’t look like us, have a different cultural background, and come from distant nations  – are so different from us that they should be disfavored is, at best, an ignorant prejudice. At worst, it is cultural racism. When this becomes the motivator for migration policies, it could be sign of systemic racism.

As activists and academics committed to justice and equity, any debate in which we use the term racism to describe individual and structural discrimination is a catch 22. If you claim to see signs of racism informing policies or individuals prejudices, you are often met with accusations of ‘pulling the r-card’ and subsequently end up in a meta debate about the use of the term racism. If you see signs that racism may be informing policies or individual prejudice and ignore it, then you are doing injustice to all the individuals who suffer as a consequence of different forms of racism.

Therefore, before I trigger yet another debate about whether something is a sign of racism, I will encourage readers to consider this:

Why is it safer to be a white American than to be a black one? What can we do with this tendency that different groups of people are discriminated against because some cultures are valued higher than others? How do we make sure that one’s right to protection from war, terror, and prosecution exist independent of their religious and cultural heritage? These questions are not easily answered, but one place to start is to become comfortable asking, and answering, the uncomfortable questions.

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