By Ruth Wodak
On 21 April 2021, The Guardian reported that “[N]early 17 child migrants a day vanished in Europe since 2018”. Of course, this fact as well as many other numbers and statistics are not new and not surprising. National governments, the European Union, politicians of all parties know that unaccompanied refugee children belong to the most vulnerable groups in our globalized societies as recent reports of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty and of the Austrian Kindeswohlkommission (established in the spring of 2021) illustrate. Frequently under way for months or even years, they finally arrive – if they survive such highly dangerous and traumatizing journeys at all – at the borders of countries which do not want to host them and which either imprison them in camps, lock them into cages and separate them from their parents (like at the US-Mexican border), threaten to send them back immediately or – rarely – after many months or even years of waiting because of difficult bureaucratic procedures allow them to stay legally with foster families who receive monies from the respective state for their food, education, clothing, and so forth. NGOs, journalists, scholars, and international organizations have written a vast number of reports, proposals, articles, and books, documenting the plight of child and adult refugees; petitions are launched daily, asking for help; and symposia continue to discuss options for humanitarian policies.
In predictable cycles, pictures of drowning women, men, and children in the Mediterranean , - between 2014 and 2018, UNICEF assumes that at least 678 children have died when trying to reach the safe harbors of Italy or Spain by boat - or of fleeing women, men and children in Afghanistan, or of starving children in camps in an African camp or of children running around in bombed-out streets in a Syrian town shock the TV audience around the world. Since September 2021, quality broadsheets report almost daily that children, women, and men are freezing at the border of Belarus and Poland. In fact, these refugees have become instrumentalized as pinball between the autocratic regime in Belarus and the European Union, as sociologist Judith Kohlenberger poignantly argues in a recent commentary: “Poland as well as Belarus conduct violent pushbacks which clearly violate the Geneva Convention as well as European Charta of Human Rights”.
To date, the sanctions proposed by the European Union prove ineffective, as migration expert Gerald Knaus rightly maintains. On 18 October 2021, CBC radio reported that Polish volunteers were trying to help refugees to escape to Poland despite the danger of being caught by the Polish police. The Polish border is mainly protected by the Polish army. In fact, Catholic priests have brought collapsible prayer pulpits to pray – not for the refugees but for the soldiers, protecting Poland from refugees. The liberal broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza reported that, “at a joint press conference aired on public television, Poland's Ministers of Interior and National Defense [both members of the Polish far-right national conservative Party PiS] presented a photo showing an alleged migrant having sexual intercourse with a cow. The presented material, it turns out, comes from an old pornographic video.” Obviously, such lies, xenophobic sentiments and related activities catch international attention and lead to scandalization. However, after a few days of intensive debates, other pressing news stories replace such reports, and daily routines prove more important.
At this point, I would like to stress the process of de-historization. It is worth asking ourselves how it is possible that refugees, women, men, and children, are turned away from borders? That they are pushed back into extreme danger? That they receive no visas to enter safe countries? Has a collective amnesia infected (some of) the member states of the European Union? Has the memory of the Conference of Evian-les-Bains 6-15 July 1938 been suppressed? A conference where delegates from thirty-two countries met to discuss the future of European Jews trying to escape Nazi atrocities.
During the nine-day meeting, much sympathy for the refugees was expressed; but most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered lame excuses for not taking in more refugees. Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the so-called “Wagner-Rogers bill”, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940, probably due to widespread antisemitic prejudice.
On 27 January 2017, when former US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would ban all refugees from settling in the US for 4 months and ban Syrian refugees indefinitely, journalist Dara Lind sarcastically states, “We’ve been here before,” and recounts the failure of the Wagner-Rogers bill in much detail. But – unfortunately – the past does not influence present decision-making. We are all experiencing a déjà-vu. In this way, historians Michal Frankl and Lidia Zessin-Jurek remind readers in an opinion piece in the broadsheet Der Standard on 13 November 2021 that the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border seems horrifyingly similar to the situation of Jewish refugees at this very border in 1939, caught in no-mans-land. Sadly, many powerful politicians seem not to have learnt from history!
Accordingly, the success of the so-called Kindertransport has been forgotten; the Kindertransport saved over 10,000 Austrian and German Jewish children in 1938 by allowing them to travel to the UK, escaping Nazi persecution. In fact, Lord Dubs, a British Labour politician, had to appeal to the British government and British Prime minister Boris Johnson to grant safety to stranded children by reminding MPs and readers of the Kindertransport. He stated that “I certainly never imagined that 81 years later, in the same country that gave homes to 10,000 lone refugee children like me, I’d be fighting for just a few hundred to be allowed to find their families here.” Historian Philipp Ther has traced the trajectory and persecution of refugees in Europe over many centuries. In one chapter, he specifically focuses on the plight of children. In the 1930s, apart from the Kindertransport, around 20,000 Spanish children were saved from being killed by Franco-fascists during the Spanish Civil War. These children were given shelter by French civilians in France, after having successfully crossed the borders to France.
Secure rich countries such as Austria seem to have forgotten a non-distant past, a past where many Austrians had to flee their homes because of the Nazi regime and the danger of being deported, tortured, and murdered – by Austrian perpetrators. The reason for such de-historization is the impact of realpolitik. National-conservative parties across Europe have shamelessly normalized the discriminatory body-politics of the far-right in order to attract the far-right electorate. The restrictive, exclusionary policies demanded by far-right populists seem to be on the rise: only specific individuals ‘deserve’ to be admitted – what political scientist Bastian Vollmer addresses as “moralization of borders”, while others are kept waiting outside or are denied entry, thus reinforcing borders and boundaries.
In fact, former Austrian Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) denounced the saving of lives in the Mediterranean as “NGO madness”. On 18 January 2020, Kurz, during an interview with the German newspaper Bild, was asked whether Austria would help some of the children (‘You’ve mentioned migration. There is, again, a large crisis on the Greek island. Would you be willing to accept refugee children from Lesbos in Austria?’). His response was: “No, we are not willing to do that. Austria over the last few years made a disproportionate contribution. There were over 150,000 asylum applications in our country, in my opinion far too many for the small Austria. We are still processing those.” Legitimation by rationalization and the argument of numbers are used here in the attempt to justify Austria’s decision to close its borders to incoming refugees – obviously an instance of what Wilhelm Heitmeyer labels “coarse civility” [rohe Bürgerlichkeit].
When asked if Austria would open its borders for 100 unaccompanied minors stranded in the camps on Moria, then Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg answered in an interview from 10 September 2020 that “If we clear the Moria camp, it will be full again […] It is also sending the wrong signal, namely that there is hope to get to Europe. That would trigger a chain reaction and we would no longer be in control of the situation. […] This is a question of common sense". Appealing to common-sense without conveying facts is a typical populist strategy. The then foreign minister explicitly argues fallaciously that the situation would get out of control if one would even help a few children. A “chain reaction” would follow, a scenario of threat, without any facts to substantiate these claims. He framed his remarks as “shouting for [fair] distribution [of refugees] would not be the solution”; in this way, any humanitarian appeals were quickly denounced as unproductive and irrational “shouts”.
In a video message on 12 September 2020, Sebastian Kurz added a fallacious argument to justify the decision that no unaccompanied refugee children from Moria should be hosted in Austria: "This inhumane system from 2015, I cannot reconcile this with my conscience. […] At the European level, we will advocate a holistic approach. What we don't need is symbolic politics. [Instead] real sustainable support for affected areas, an economic perspective for the African continent, and an effective protection of our external borders [are needed].”
Why the policies of 2015 should be assessed as inhumane is not elaborated, no evidence is provided. On the contrary, civil society, NGOs, local, regional as well as a few national governments succeeded in saving many refugees; solidarity with the vulnerable became relevant. This changed after the terror attacks in Paris (November 2015) and New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne. However, latter actions were not committed by refugees who had just arrived; but these terrible events were quickly instrumentalized by many politicians as arguments for protecting the countries from refugees. Kurz explained that he could not reconcile with his conscience not being able to save all children; and he fallaciously concluded it would be better not to save even one. Moreover, he denounced the attempts to help refugee children as symbolic politics; and once again cynically emphasized that protecting the external borders was more important than protecting the children. Predictably, Kurz and his turquoise-green coalition government stated on 21 August 2021 that no refugees from Afghanistan would be granted visa from Austria – although the Viennese Major Michael Ludwig (from the Social-democratic Party), for example, immediately proposed to host at least 300 Afghan female judges and journalists in Vienna, after the victory of the Taliban.
The cynical rejection of the Charta of Human Rights and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child substantiate de-historization and the normalization of exclusion. Far-right populism in all its varieties has become normalized as a mainstream political force in many European countries and beyond. It is possible, therefore, to claim that the far right has successfully launched and subsequently established an overall exclusionary, quasi “political-religious master frame” (@ Michael Minkenberg) with immense influence on discourses and material practices, far beyond the boundaries of the far right.