French Election a Step for Justice for Refugees, But Entrenched Inequalities Remain

On Sunday, progressives around the world exhaled a sigh of relief as French voters resoundingly rejected xenophobic nationalist “populism” by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. One of the stakes in France’s runoff election was far-rightwing Marine Le Pen’s vision about what is often called the “migrant crisis.”

Until French citizens voted for global businessman Emmanuel Macron, a newcomer to politics, a rightward tide seemed to cross the Atlantic, crashing into Europe. British PM Theresa May called for snap elections to consolidate her party’s mandate to negotiate “Brexit.”

Macron’s win marks a small victory for the left and anti-populist movements, especially for the millions of forced migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Macron ran on an immigration platform that commended German chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous refugee policy and promised to prioritize asylum issues in his first six months in office.

But not all are sighing in relief. 4,000 miles to the southeast of Paris in Nairobi, Ifrah, a Somali refugee, waits for news on her pending resettlement case. She has been waiting for seven years already and is becoming less and less hopeful that she will ever be resettled.

“There is no hope for us anymore,” Ifrah explained. “We knew it after Trump got elected, and then we knew surely after he banned Somalis. And Europe, there is too many Syrians so they are not accepting from Kenya. I think maybe Australia is the only place left.”

Indeed, the situation in Europe is disjointed.

Some particular EU member states, which represent the eastern flank of “fortress Europe,” have seen what anthropologist Andria Timmer calls “Trumpism before Trump.”

Targeting Syrian migrants, on October 16, 2015, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán sealed the border, erecting barbed wire. Timmer analyzes a public billboard campaign, arguing that Orbán successfully controls the narrative, pushing out humanitarian goals in favor of security. His public statements and policies foreshadowed Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban,” like his U.S. homologue using fear as his trump card.

Across the border, in a Catholic majority country, Croatia rose to the challenges of processing refugees passing through, at least during the “humanitarian corridor” from September 2015 to March 2016. And then the situation changed, according to sociologist Laura Heideman.  “Humanitarian principles started to erode as the borders within Europe started closing, and in the past few months, there have been reports of asylum seekers being forcibly returned to Serbia.”

Heideman explains: “It’s a lot easier to provide short-term humanitarian aid to people only passing through than integrating people long term.”

Europe’s patchwork response is what anthropologist Heath Cabot, author of On the Doorstep of Europe, qualifies as a “return to the bad status quo.”

Heideman takes issue with the dominant discourse: “This is not a crisis of resources. This is a crisis of political will.” She points out that European countries are far from their immigration capacity, which is far different from, say, Lebanon where 183 of 1000 people is a refugee.

Anthropologist Linda Rabben, author of Sanctuary and Aslyum, also questions the exceptionalism behind the word “crisis.” Rabben pointed out that following the Second World War, between 20-30 million people were assimilated into Western European nations, a process that took five to fifteen years to resolve.

One key difference between then and now is the “desirability” of refugees. More specifically, racial, ethnic, and religious differences and stereotypes about today’s migrants mark Syrians and those fleeing from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Horn of Africa regions as “Other” and potentially “terrorist.” Right-wing nationalist governments exploit stereotypes of “dangerous refugees” to justify their restrictive immigration policies.

Many, like Ifrah, have a different understanding of the “crisis.”

Many countries in the Global South have been managing massive and abrupt flows of refugees with far fewer resources for far longer than Europe. And even with the current wave of people fleeing Syria, more than 90% of refugees reside in the Global South. And that percentage has grown.

In January 2011, just before the current European migration, UNHCR reported 33.92 million persons of concern, with roughly 3 million residing in Europe – just under 9%. As of June 2016, UNHCR counted 65.3 million persons of concern, with about 4 million residing in Europe, representing just 6% – compared to Africa’s 29% and the MENA region’s 39%.

European nations’ restrictive asylum policies have not gone unnoticed by those who have hosted the bulk of refugees. To many, Europe and the US are shirking their “burden-sharing” responsibilities outlined in the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Citing this double standard, on May 6, 2016 Kenya, the 7th largest refugee hosting country, announced its intent to close its camps and phase out refugee hosting, due to “economic, security and environmental burdens,” going so far as to disband its Department of Refugee Affairs.

Karanja Kibicho, Kenya’s Principal Secretary for the Interior argued, “international obligations in Africa should not be done on the cheap; the world continues to learn the ruinous effect of these persistent double standards.”

Kenya’s scaling down refugee assistance comes at an inopportune time. Somalia, the third largest refugee producing country, is still gripped with armed conflict and now faces a severe drought and famine.

Merkel’s open stance does not treat refugees as a “burden” but as a necessary workforce to care for Germany’s aging population and to keep German factories running. However, as activist anthropologist Andrea Steinke notes, Merkel put up a fierce resistance, clamping down on activism and rejecting rights-based language.

The French election – and the German model that prevailed Sunday – as market-based justifications, are fragile and unstable. As anyone living in the U.S. “Rust Belt” knows all too well, markets change, and so a generation of workers found themselves “downsized.”

And couched in market logic, they send mixed signals to peoples at the short end of the stick, not powerful enough to reverse this domino effect as Kenyan and other leaders reject postcolonial hypocrisy.

It could also simply be racism, still alive after France’s election.

And so Ifrah, like tens of thousands of others, are treated as a number, dehumanized, scraping by at the margins of the market, fearful of an uncertain fate that rests in the hands of voting citizens in the Global North.

Ifrah and others deserve more than economic calculation, but full acknowledgement of her humanity, and the rights that this entails. Empathy, not self-interest, can be the bridge that brings us together.


Elizabeth Wirtz is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Purdue University. Her research interests include refugees, humanitarian aid, gender-based violence, and reproductive health. She has conducted research in Kenya, Uganda, and India on issues ranging from violence and aid in refugee camps to local perceptions of international engineering development projects to traditional birth attendants’ impact on maternal health.  Mark Schuller is Associate Professor at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the State University of Haiti. Schuller has three dozen scholarly publications on NGOs, globalization, disasters, and gender in Haiti. Schuller wrote or co-edited seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller is active in several solidarity efforts.