Decentering the Refugee Crisis: Racialized Displacement in Berlin and Paris- Part 1: Global and Regional Scales

Unpacking the ‘refugee crisis’ trope, we argue that refugees are unfairly blamed for social problems in their countries and cities of relocation

2015-16 saw more than 2.5 million asylum claims lodged in the EU signalling the so-called European refugee crisis—a phenomenon we will name as a trope in this post. Media outlets have referred to these migrants as a ‘flood’, ‘swarm’, ‘flock’, and as ‘marauders’ amongst other thinly veiled racial metaphors linking refugees to animals, barbarians, and natural disasters (Guardian 2015). In 2015, French Prime Minister Valls stated that France “cannot accommodate any more refugees, that’s not possible” (Guardian 2016). In stark contrast, German Chancellor Merkel’s slogan “we can do it!” referred to the acceptance of refugees into the country. As with most things, the naming of migrant arrival as a crisis, as well as its divergent reactions encapsulated by the French and German leaders, conceals messy power dynamics of everyday survival of displacement. The reality—on the ground—of refugee management in both Berlin and Paris, regardless of geographical differences, reveals similar social issues, notably the lack of sufficient affordable produced by decades of market-led governance. Therein lies the discursive and material formation of what might be referred to as the refugee crisis trope that has helped to shape the survival of refugees on global, regional, and urban scales.

In this first part of our two-part blog series, we will examine the global and regional dimensions of refugee management and survival. Through unpacking the refugee crisis trope, we argue that refugees are unfairly blamed for social problems in their countries and cities of relocation and thus, refugee management and survival should be examined within the context of multi-scalar austerity and profit-driven policies aimed at promoting balanced budgets as a key ingredient to achieve economic growth. Indeed, refugee survival cannot analytically be separated from pre-existing contexts of urban poverty- the central focus of part 2.

At the global scale, the refugee crisis motif, used by media, policymakers, and government officials in the EU, captures the tensions between international norms of refugee acceptance and the scarce resources ravaged by rounds of fiscal austerity and privatisation on the urban scale. Take for example a recent article appearing in Foreign Policy “The Next Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Break Europe’s Back” (Foreign Policy 2016) which explores how Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan’s threat of releasing 3.6 million refugees over the Aegean Sea to Europe, if they interfere with Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. This highlighted, among other things, the EU’s inability to deal with sheltering refugees and, more importantly, the treatment of refugee life as systemically de-stabilizing and thus, undesirable. Through this discourse, refugees are disembodied from life itself. They are treated as mass numbers and framed as bodies weaponized by the Islamic ‘other’ to destroy white European culture thereby justifying strong borders and inhumane treatment. Meanwhile, this trope also serves to mask the urban realities of capitalism by which we mean shelter insecurity surrounding emergency, short-term, and longer-term housing for urban refugees in Berlin and Paris.

At the regional scale, the European Parliament’s major policy directives involve strengthening its borders and preventing irregular migration—migration on the basis of economic need—following policies of containment that place refugees in makeshift camps thereby preventing entry in the EU. In fact, the EU has struck deals with countries like Libya, Turkey, and Niger to keep refugees in place. Libya, for instance, received €237 million and Turkey received close to €6 billion for refugee assistance with the condition that they agreed to put in procedures to stamp out irregular migration defined by the International Organisation for Migration as extralegal movement of persons. As a recent article in The Guardian points out, the Libyan government stands to make a profit from the detention of migrants earning an additional €5 million in 2019 as the numbers of migrants entering the EU off the Libyan coast have decreased. While the EU has named this reduction a success, a recently released Limite document highlights the dire conditions faced by refugees in detention in Libya. In abject opposition to the direct goals of preventing migration, the EU document highlights that some detention centres in Libya are in fact smuggling migrants into the EU. Barring horrid shelter conditions, gender-based violence and death, some of the money allocated to Libya is also being pilfered by smugglers anyway. Our analysis of the trope places refugee management in the context of profit-driven violence and the nightmarish situation in Libya reveals the material consequences of racialized EU policy.

Undoubtedly, the EU has spent billions on preventing migration and the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) emphasizes various policy guidelines for relocation once refugees do manage to enter Europe. Missing, of course, is much coherent direction from the EU as it pertains to actual survival particularly surrounding shelter and work—objectives that inadvertently get downloaded to the urban scale of governance. Despite little policy guidance, the crisis trope dictates that only those refugees that are swiftly integrated into the market are worthy of life. A recent working paper published by the EU Commission concludes that, “labour market performance of refugees largely depends on what education and country-specific skills they bring…good formal education is found to be a necessary condition to their integration into the labour market…” (Peschner 2017:4). This discourse reifies age old adages of migrants being acceptable insofar as they can turn themselves into useful labourers. At the same time, the burden of integration is placed on refugees themselves especially in the context of welfare retrenchment and heightened racism in Europe.

These examples of EU policies (or lack thereof) illustrate the material and discursive realities of the multi-scalar refugee crisis trope. The trope reifies societal racism and frames migrants as duplicitous actors undeserving of life itself as evidenced by EU migrant policy in Libya. Once refugees enter the EU, the trope also masks urban realities of capitalism and ignores the everyday dimensions and struggles for survival. For example, refugee management in the EU exists in the context of diminished public housing spending and the favouring of private rental housing in the context of ever-increasing rental rates and the devolution of housing responsibility to the urban scale. We thus emphasize that major urban centres such as Berlin and Paris are battleground sites where struggles for survival i.e. within the wider ambit of racialized violence in capitalism are most evident. The Mayor of Barcelona echoes our sentiments succinctly by stating, “It may be that [country] states grant asylum, but it is cities that provide shelter”. The city is thus not only the site of austerity but also the site where urban refugees are most visibly managed. We pick up on these issues in Part 2 of our blog-series.