After the Refugee Movement of 2015: Lesson Learned or Business as Usual?

iStock-814753624-graffiti-handshakeLudger Pries explores the important moral, social and political challenge facing Europe and the international community: the protection of refugees as one of the most vulnerable groups on the planet.

In 2015 one and a half million forced migrants entered the European Union without border control. All over Europe hundreds of thousands of volunteers, groups and organisations offered food or shelter and welcomed the incomers. There also rose xenophobic protest, and EU-member states reacted between hostility and “we will make it”. Some years later, the situation seems to have calmed down, things look like they are ‘under control’ of the European Union and its member states. But what did actually happen during the ‘hot autumn’ of 2015? How to understand the overwhelming welcoming of refugees by civil society? How to explain the contrasting reactions of EU member states? What did the EU learn from all? Are the so-called ‘causes of refuge’ definitely eliminated? Or was refugee protection simply externalized?

Were the refugees of 2015 signal and part of a new transnational social movement?
Although after 2016 the topic of refugee protection went out of the central focus of public attention and discourse, many crucial questions still remain. Based on primary and secondary data analysis my new book, Refugees, Civil Society and the State offers a social science insight into the dynamics of the so‐called refugee crisis, the origin of refugees and the responses of civil society. It characterises the politics of member states’ governments as organized non‐responsibility and analyses the long‐term challenges of European refugee protection.

It argues, first, that the often‐cited ‘cause of refugee movement’ is a new transnational social question. This is characterised by a vicious cycle of (1) lack of social development, (2) armed conflicts and organised violence (which can be traditional wars between states, but much more often take the form of the use of collective and organised force by gangs, militias, cartels and self‐proclaimed political organisations on a national or transnational level) and (3) forced migration. Second, a Common European Asylum System is developing as legal‐regulatory framework, but the normative and cognitive pillars of a working European regime of refugee protection remained weak in face of the prevailing political organised non‐responsibility. Third, the lack of actual common European refugee protection was partly compensated by spontaneous civil engagement, networks of refugee‐ and asylum‐oriented organisations and refugees as collective actors that jointly represent elements of a new transnational social movement.

The ‘hot autumn’ of 2015 and its promoters
In autumn of 2015 hundreds of thousands of refugees entered the European Union mainly via Turkey and Greece following then the Balkan route. EU member states like Hungary opened and closed their borders, then let people transit towards their preferred countries of destination: Austria, Germany, and Sweden. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers helped refugees on their way and arriving. In late summer German chancellor Merkel declared “we will manage it”, and the country received one million refugees only in 2015. Since October 2015 all governments in Europe began re-establishing border control, even between Schengen states. In March 2016, an agreement with Turkey was signed externalizing a great part of refugee border control.

A reconstruction of these events reveals a complex entanglement of rational decisions, spontaneous and emotional acts of desperation, courageous actions and tactical behaviour by individual and collective actors: refugees, their non‐profit or for‐profit assistants, state bodies, NGOs and politicians on the local, national and European levels. The scientific analysis of these processes reveals complex social mechanisms. The insight of sociologist R. Merton identifies the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action – like the migration accelerating consequences of Hungary’s stop-and-go policies. The Thomas‐theorem, according to which people act on basis of their definition of situations, not of the definition of situations by others was also in evidence – decisions of refugees’ routes were taken on basis of comments and information on Facebook or Twitter and less based on official announcements of state agents.

Civil society engagement as crucial
Civic engagement during 2015 and thereafter was crucial and to a certain point ‘filled the gap’ left by (lack of) refugee protection activities of state bodies and politicians. Volunteering and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) generated a certain pressure on authorities to set themselves in motion. Who ae the people and organisations that have been doing so much for the reception and accommodation of refugees since the late summer of 2015? Who were their predecessors in Europe? Who got active and for what reasons? By answering these questions my book will help to judge how sustainable civil society’s engagement will be.

In some European countries (like Spain, Italy, France or Germany) NGOs related to refugee protection are long-standing, visible and active. They reveal different value orientations from religious to political activism. Since the autumn of 2015 they have expanded their already established work and offered the infrastructure of knowledge and networks. At the same time, there emerged many new groups of political activists and charity driven organizations. This happened not only in the older EU member states, but also in the Eastern countries of recent EU accession. Taking these different activities of civil society and approaching refugees not primarily as passive victims but actor groups equipped with a minimum of economic, social and technical resources, the book discusses if one could characterise the 2015 events as a signal of a new transnational social movement of refugee protection.

State reactions and organized non-responsibility
How to characterize the reaction of important groups of political actors and administrative authorities? Between the Scylla of defending the responses of EU member states and the EU as a whole and the Charybdis of condemning all (re)actions of legal-political establishment the book analyses the longer history of EU asylum policies. The disparate treatment of refugee‐admission, recognition of refugees, designation of safe countries of origin and the absence of burden‐sharing show that the EU is miles away from any real institutionalisation of a European protection of refugees. On the formal level the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) was passed in 2013. It contains more far reaching provisions for the protection of refugees than comparable regulations of the individual member states. Nevertheless, the Dublin mechanism as part of the CEAS showed up as triggering national egoisms and failing to establish European responsibility sharing.

Concerning asylum and refugee politics the activities of EU member states have to be characterized as an organized non‐responsibility. EU member states don’t feel responsible for a shared policy of refugee protection. They leave the states alone that have to deal with the bulk of arriving refugees, namely the Mediterranean states. But the EU member states not only neglect their co-responsibility, they even blame the most affected countries (like Spain, or Italy or Greece) for not having an efficient asylum system or for letting arriving refugees transit further to other EU member states. Based on case studies, the book reveals how such confusion enabled the corresponding actors to move responsibilities back and forth between the local, regional or district, federal and EU levels and thus to disguise their own inactivity by pointing to the shortcomings of others – at the expense of the refugees directly affected. As shown for several cases, due to power relations in the fields of legitimacy there hadn’t been many possibilities to breach this wall of reciprocal paralysis until refugees acted in social networks and civil society organised collective action.

The ‘causes of refuge’ as the new transnational social question
Almost all politicians agreed upon the necessity to fight the reasons why people have to flee their home. But what is actually at the root of refugee movements? Since the beginning of the 21st century debates related to forced migration dynamics all over the world concentrate on the so-called development‐migration‐nexus. Accordingly, people feel the need to migrate due to a lack of economic, socio-cultural and political development at home. The book argues that this perspective has to be broadened to analyse the vicious cycles of lack of development, organised violence and forced migration. Adding climate change and some other factors, these vicious cycles have to be considered as the new transnational social question of the 21st century. The ‘old social question’ was raised in the 19th century by industrial capitalism in Europe and addressed by nation states’ social policies and welfare regulations in order to integrate the working class and institutionalize class conflict.

In the 21st century, the role of organised violence in particular has to be treated. The book sketches out empirical evidence from two broader regions, where the entanglement of organized violence, lack of development and forced migration could be observed, namely Central‐North America and Sub‐Saharan‐North‐Africa‐Middle‐East‐Europe. Comparing both macro-regions it is evident that the wars in Middle East might have been an exceptional driving force of refugee movements in 2015, but that the vicious cycles of migration, development and violence represent an endemic challenge of the century in many regions.

The so-called refugee crisis of 2015 as an opportunity for social integration and adhesion
Since 2016 nationalist, racist and anti-refugee movements and governments have got stronger in many countries, not only in Europe. In many places, the general scene changed from warm welcoming to blaming refugees for everything. Politicians in many countries fear to lose votes and therefore adapt to anti-refugee and safety-first discourses. Against such tendencies in public discourse, the last part of my book deals with the great opportunities for European societies to not only let refugees arrive, but to arrive as society at oneself in the sense of a more adequate self‐perception and concept. Here we can distinguish three levels. Firstly, the ‘refugee‐crisis’ of 2015 allows us to use the experiences of persecution, displacement and flight during and after the Nazi‐regime for the ‘cognitive framing’ of the present situation. Secondly it becomes possible to critically reprocess the treatment of the ‘guest‐workers’ generation in Germany and elsewhere from the 1960s to the 1990s: What lessons can be drawn from this experience for the arrival and the integration of refugees? Thirdly Germany and other EU member states get the historic opportunity, to more sustainably arrive in Europe. Although the societal and political development after 2015 may invite to more sceptical or pessimistic analysis and prognosis, the ‘refugee‐crisis’ contains the great opportunity to refine the project of a European society in a globalized world. Arriving as a concept in a broader perspective, as developed e.g. by Hannah Arendt, also means remembering and rooting. The new transnational social question invites us to arrive at the current state of the global world by taking over global responsibility.

Ludger Pries is Professor in the Sociology Department at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany


Refugees, Civil Society and the State: European Experiences and Global Challenges by Ludger Pries is available now.

Read chapter 1,  Challenges and opportunities of the refugee movement of 2015 in Europe free on Elgaronline



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