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Agitated Times: Why Historians Need to Question the Rhetoric of the “Refugee Crisis”

Barbara Lüthi
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1. Shortly after a moral panic occurred over the sexual assaults most likely perpetrated by unruly “North African or Middle Eastern” young men (including migrants and refugees) during the 2016 New Year’s Eve festivities in Cologne, sensational titles in many German newspapers appeared. The Berliner Zeitung wrote of “sexual terror” and the popular newspaper Bild of the “sex-mob”, a “pack without inhibitions”. The “grande dame” of German mainstream feminism, Alice Schwarzer, had a particularly blunt explanation for the “night of terror”, linking the assaults to the use of sexual violence as a “traditional weapon of war“ and inferring that Islamists were declaring war on the West. “So was Cologne a signal?”, she asked in her well-known feminist journal EMMA.[1] With such statements, Schwarzer insinuated that the radical Islamists may have sent North African criminals in order to destabilize the West since sexual assaults are a weapon, which “break women and humiliate men (because they cannot protect ‚their’ women)”.[2] The “Cologne night” turned into a projection screen before politicians and citizens hardly knew what had happened.

Many feminist groups decidedly distanced themselves from Alice Schwarzer’s accusations and redirected public attention to the sexual violations by demanding a reform of criminal law on sexual offences. They engaged in antiracist policies with such slogans such as “Our feminism is antiracist – reclaim Feminism”. They strongly claimed that neither a reduction of sexual violence to that perpetrated by Muslims, nor a reduction of Muslim men to stand for the perpetration of violence, served to end sexual violence. Yet, large parts of the German media coverage mainly concentrated on the cultural and national alleged identity of the offenders. The incident fed into the populist anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing parties and voters but also circulated amongst more liberal groups. The offenders were immediately cast as potential foreign “criminals”, “sexual predators” and “rapists,” exemplifying a dangerous type of deviancy, which called for their necessary deportation from the country, thereby shifting the focus away from the general question of sexual violence against women in society at large. As Beverly Weber stated, the sexualized violence spun in Cologne on New Year’s Eve “fed into racialized fears of refugees and immigrants promoted by groups on the radical right, even as racialized fears returned to mainstream discourses.” In this context, critical responses to the racism of the radical right and the mainstream media partly also participated in racialized discourses by resorting to an exclusionary notion of ‘Europe’ or ‘European values’.[3] In the midst of the so-called “refugee crisis”, associated with the uncontrollable arrival of migrants and refugees, this supposed state of emergency has not only become a question of border enforcement but also of mundane policing and furthermore points to an “incipient” crisis of social order.

But why are many Europeans actually invoking the image of a “refugee crisis”? Is it because people are moving to Europe in large numbers? This would seem almost hypocritical regarding the fact that Europe has had a long history of voluntary and coerced movements out of Europe to other parts of the world throughout the 19th and 20th century (colonialism, World War I and World War II). For example, the postwar period in Europe was marked not only by the mobility of millions of “displaced persons”, refugees and people fleeing from the new communist regimes in East Central Europe; it is likewise the histories of colonization and empires which evolved as one of the foundations of contemporary global migration. After the end of World War II, decolonization and unequal global terms of trade imposed on the southern hemisphere by the “North” shifted refugee and labor migrations to the “South”. As Dirk Hoerder and Christiane Harzig argue, the “’Western’ countries, which had sent migrants – often armed – out to all other parts of the word, now became the destination of unarmed, often desperately poor migrants”.[4] The Atlantic World’s imperialist states had missed the opportunity to negotiate an end to colonialism. Colonial peoples in Asia and in North and sub-Saharan Africa began wars of independence. By the 1960s Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium had to abandon most of their colonies. By the 1960s, major refugee populations were being generated in Africa, mainly as a result of decolonization. In the 1970s the geographical focus of these refugee movements shifted to South and South East Asia, notably as a result of the war in Vietnam and in other parts of Indochina.[5] 

In the meantime, it has become almost common to speak of “the crisis” in Europe, when one should rather speak of a “crisis of Europe” – presumably even a crisis of the very idea of “Europe.” The Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris on January 7, 2015, the subsequent massacre in Paris on November 13, 2015, the terror attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016, and many other violent occurrences seem to frame what has otherwise been called “the migrant crisis,” or “the refugee crisis” in Europe. Moreover, the Cologne incident shows both how Islamophobic discourses are circulating and making use of the idea of ‘Europe’, and how the responses to the new racism of the radical right and the center of the political spectrum likewise invoke ‘Europe’ as a strategy. Scholars and intellectuals have critically questioned whether the rhetoric of “crisis” comes from the fact that many feel a “threat” to Europe’s Christian “civilization”, deriving from the fear that a large amount of the arrivals are not “white” but “Muslim”, thus representing a possible “terrorist” threat, and are entering Europe “illegally”. Closely linked is the more general fear that European societies do not have the sufficient economic and emotional capacities to absorb the migrants. Yet, putting the question of economic and emotional strain in a more global perspective, it is important to recall that other parts of the world are continuously dealing with much higher numbers of refugees. The statistics produced by the UNHCR and other agencies show that the biggest percentage of the world’s refugees is still remaining in the global South, with the sub-Saharan Africa region hosting the largest number of refugees.[6] In “Europe”, Turkey is clearly leading in numbers of arrivals, even more so since the EU-Turkey refugee agreement of the spring 2016. In this context it is important to keep in mind that almost all countries in Europe are migration societies in the sense that their population structure and realities of life have long been profoundly changed by migration. We are postmigrant societies, and the “actual” Europe is characterized by a national, religious, linguistic heterogeneity and socio-political complexity.[7]

As a cohort of scholars have shown, the continuous eruption of the language of “crisis” in the context of migration to Europe evidently calls for some critical scrutiny on several levels.[8] First, the term “crisis” commonly points to a situation of disruption within a prior situation of stability, and is linked to imminent danger demanding immediate action. Yet, in the context of ever more restrictive asylum laws at the EU level and illegalized migration into and across Europe, the very distinction between what is ostensibly “stable” and “in crisis” is entirely tenuous. Illegalized migration in Europe is a product and inevitable effect of a migration regime that fore­closes mobility for the great majority of people from large parts of the world. From a state perspective, “illegals” are not simply transgressing the law but are undermining the ability of the state to control its territory. Illegalized migration operates through the putative “failure” of multiple states to prevent the exit or entry of migrants and refugees who have been effectively denied any legal right to enter these various national territories. Furthermore, as the “New Keywords Collective” – a collaborative project of collective writing, which critically aims to re-evaluate current and past migration policies in Europe[9] – argues, the ongoing unrest of war and civil war across multiple regions of the globe, and particularly in the Middle East and Africa, at least partly must be comprehended as an outcome of colonial and neocolonial occupations and military interventions over the last century or more.[10] Hence, the question of war and “crisis” has accompanied the Middle East and Africa not due to any supposedly inherent proclivity toward violence or incapacity for self-government but due to the contradictory legacies of conflict and the enduring realities of social and political fracture that originate with European and Euro-American imperialism and their deeply destabilizing effects.[11]

In times of increasing social polarization between the rich and the poor (including in Western societies), between ethno-nationalized “us” and “them”; in times of a disturbing rise in nationalist, racist, antifeminist and authoritarian movements, and of an alarming global increase of displaced people on the move due to poverty, war, discrimination, environmental disasters, migration has undoubtedly risen to the top of global and national policy agendas. More often than not migration is defined in terms of a “problem”, a “threat”, a “deficit”, or – a “crisis”. The result is a social climate characterized by fear, mistrust and hatred. At the turn of the 21st century the stereotyping and “demonization of others”,[12] whether on religious, nationalist, racist, or political grounds, has once again become a burning issue.

2. In this context, historians can play a fundamental role in analyzing, explaining, and more importantly questioning migration as a phenomenon and process. History is not just politics, but at the same time it is not the “other of politics”. Historians need to be particularly attentive when differentiations and subtleties are lost during debates and perspectives are narrowed down. That is to say, when “the medial and cultural arenas of public discourses transform reason into opinion and arguments to a mere spectacle”.[13] Historical thinking can contribute to and intervene into the often shortsighted and contentious debates on migration and on the preliminary fixation of the figure of “the migrant”, who continuously stands in as the “other” in contemporary debates. 

First, a history of knowledge makes it possible to examine how migrants and migration evolve as a “object of knowledge” and fixed “truths”. In an interview from 1976, Foucault defines “truth” not as “the ensemble of truths to be discovered and accepted“, but rather as “the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true”.[14] In the aftermath of the “Cologne night” one could literally watch such “truths” unfolding when it comes down to the construction of the Arab man.[15] Paradoxically, different types of media did not address the practice and social context of the misogynistic harassments on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, but rather the deficits of the culture and the religion of the other. The self-image of a national (or even European) enlightened and emancipated progressiveness was contrasted with the public image of the Muslim man as misogynist or aggressive boy – similar to the image of the Muslim woman as expression of cultural backwardness and religious oppression characterizing the veiling and burqa debates in many European countries. The knowledge object of the “Arab man” was established through a specific authoritative version of the media. The powerfully established claim to truth in the aftermath of the Cologne night indicated that male refugees represent a sexual danger for German women and that this could not be tolerated – with right-wing populist demonstrations showing the banner “Rape-Fugees not Welcome”.[16] Such debates reflecting the otherness of Muslim people – women and men alike – have found different incarnations throughout history, from colonial times up to the present day.[17]

Scholars have spoken of a “migrantization” of public debates which are reflected in a will to “know” the migrant or refugee Other, resulting in numerous ways to produce knowledge.[18] Historians should engage in an “epistemological destabilizing” and theoretical questioning of the very mean and function of certain key concepts and categories over time such as “refugee”, “migrant”, “mobility”, “”white”, “black”, and “Muslim”.[19]The will to produce knowledge of migrants comprises several areas of knowledge production and includes different actors, institutions and organizations. It is not only visible in popular media discourses (as shown during the Cologne incident), public debates, and international organizations, but also, for example, in bureaucratic documentation. The power of bureaucratic documentation to make social distinctions and classify human beings according to established criteria touches on an important aspect of modern migration policy.[20] As can be witnessed in the recent proliferation of categories to describe the diverse global phenomena of forced displacement, “refugeeness” involves much more than a single identity position, but includes the political refugee, the environmental refugee, the internally displaced person, and a host of others. Faced with such an explosion of categories for human displacement, current conditions strongly suggest that the answer of “who is a refugee” must necessarily be plural, ambiguous, and most of all historical.[21] Yet, since the 1980s, the national asylum procedures in Europe have become more complex and the possibilities for international refugee protection (as well as labor migration) from the less developed countries have been seriously undermined by ever more restrictive laws and categorizations designed to disqualify claimants from international protection in most parts of the “global North”. In his widely cited articles on “Labelling Refugees”, Roger Zetter reminds us that examining how labels are chosen and applied to those migrating can explain how certain bureaucratic, political and other interests and procedures are crucial determinants in the definition of labels such as “refugee” or “forced migrants”.[22] Labels, he contends, are “the tangible representation of policies and programs, in which labels are not only formed but are then also transformed by bureaucratic processes which institutionalize and differentiate categories of eligibility and entitlements”.[23] Central to Zetter’s thesis is the examination of the powerful institutional contexts involved and the discourses through which the category “refugee” is construed and public policy shaped. With respect to historical research, this entails examining not only the agency, settings and motivations of refugees for leaving a country but also the practices of states and other actors as they attempt to manage refugees through specific processes of “labelling”. Special attention must be focused on the sometimes deliberate “fractioning” and conflation of such labels in the interests of national and supra-national actors or of the securitization of migration. Looking at how knowledge circulates between human beings and institutions is not a question of exploring “facts” and “truths”. It rather is an attempt to excavate “how, when and possibly why a specific knowledge appears –and disappears again”.[24] This counts for the persona of the “refugee” or “migrant” as much as for the “Arab man” in the case of the Cologne incidents. We must remember, that the blurred category of “the migrant” or “the refugee” neither fixes the subject to a stable identity nor defines it on the basis of natural features or a distinctive practices”.[25]

Second, in times of recurring racist attacks, racial profiling, tightened border controls, and a surge of white supremacy (not only) in Europe, questions of race in an intersectional approach call for new attention. Plenty of people are convinced that the modern times that W. E. B. Du Bois once identified as the century of the color line have now passed. But despite assumptions of a “raceless world“ in Europe, racial hierarchy is still with us, connected to the consolidation of culture lines rather than color lines.[26] As Gilroy rightly pointed out, “[r]ace refuses to remain silent because it isn’t just a word. It is a set of conditions, shifting over time. It is (...) a passion released or charged (up) and put in gear by events, concerns, troubles. As ways of being, living, thinking, emoting, it is both prompt and product of social tensions and catastrophes. (...) Race serves as an invisible border line demarcating both who formally belongs or does not belong, and what can or cannot be said about it”.[27] In the post-World War II period racial arrangement and order were disavowed in the European imaginary. As a result of the willingness to leave behind racist ideologies informing colonialism and the Holocaust, the notion of “racelessness” was accompanied by a major paradigmatic shift expressed in the growing importance of culture over biology.[28] This regime of “raceless racism” related to a specific epistemological rupture that evolved after the World War II in relation with the UNESCO “Statements of Race” in 1950 and 1951. Race was removed from official language and declared unsuitable to describe social formations.[29] Because the classical ideas of innate biological superiority had become discredited politically, new forms of racism attribute the alleged incompatibility between different cultures to an incapacity of different cultures to communicate and even live peacefully with each other.[30] More recently, cultural differences have been strongly linked to racialized notions of religion and secularity, especially in regard to Islam.[31] The refugee crisis –and this still calls for further research – has not triggered, but definitely reinforced such ideas.

Returning to the “Cologne night” once more, the debate on sexism that flared up again as a consequence of the sexual assaults by young migrants and refugees during the New Year’s Eve celebrations 2015/2016, showed deeply racialized and sexualized connotations. In this context, Gabriele Dietze introduced the concept of ethnosexism in order to approach an existing yet currently aggravated conceptualization of migration as a “sexual problem”. This adds an intersectional dimension to the concept of sexism. She suggests that the “sexually dangerous Muslim refugee” performs as a figure of defense against migration and shows its function partly also in feminist and liberal attitudes for narratives of western superiority, emancipation and occidental cultural self-assurance.[32]

3. Such patterns, justification strategies, symbolic orders and representations can appear in different versions and different historical and institutionalized settings. Analyzing different actors at the junctures of varieties of categorical differences such as race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, and religion, enables an epistemic enlargement of current analyses on inclusion/exclusion and inequalities. Of course, this does not mean that a homogeneous discourse exist on such topics. In fact, one should not forget the manifold and dissonant voices and “acts of citizenship” (Engin F. Isin) that are becoming visible in the midst of the so-called “refugee crisis”.[33] But historians (and people in general) need to be attentive to the rhetoric of “crisis” and need to pose the question whether the label can serve to clarify anything. As Janet Roit­man cautions, “through the term ‘crisis,’ the singularity of events is abstracted by a generic logic, making crisis a term that seems self-explanatory”.[34]

It is therefore helpful to explore the political uses that “crisis” may be pressed to serve. By defining a complex situation (such as the contemporary dynam­ics of mass migration and refugee movements) as a “crisis” and therefore as “exceptional”, we risk concealing “the violence and permanent exception that are the norm under global capitalism, and may serve to perpetuate the conditions that have led to the purported ‘emergency’ in the first place”.[35] Reinhart Koselleck offers a useful genealogy of the term “crisis,” reminding that the concept originally also meant "decision" in the sense of “reaching a verdict or judgment, what today is meant by criticism (Kritik)”.[36] This could help opening up new channels, spaces of intervention and debates on the so-called “refugee crisis” by asking critical questions about who belongs to Europe, and what (and who) actually defines Europe’s history. Or as the “New Keywords Collective” stated,we cannot ‘contain’ our analysis within European’ (much less, EU-ropean) geo-political boundaries. Indeed, the very borders and boundaries attributed to ‘Europe’ are unsettled by the transnational dynamics and inter-continental scale of migrant and refugee movements, and therefore by the spatial multiplication of socio-political interconnections among and across these different but interrelated ‘crises’”.[37]

Pour citer cet article : Barbara Lüthi, « Agitated Times: Why Historians Need to Question the Rhetoric of the “Refugee Crisis”», Histoire@Politique, n° 31, janvier-avril 2017, [en ligne : www.histoire-politique.fr]

Notes :

[1] Alice Schwarzer, “Was war da los?”, In EMMA, March/April 2016, p. 6-7.

[2] Gabriele Dietze, “Ethnosexismus: Sex-Mob-Narrative um die Kölner Sylvesternacht”, in Movements. Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung, 2/1, 2016, p. 177-185.

[3] Beverly Weber, “We Must Talk about Cologne: Race, Gender, And Reconfigurations of ‘Europe’”, German Politics & Society 34 (2016) 4, p. 68-86.

(URL: http://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/gps/34/4/gps340405.xml). 

[4] Christiane Harzig and Dirk Hoerder with Donna Gabaccia, What is Migration History?, Cambridge, Malden, Polity Press, 2009, p. 45.

[5] On the numbers of migrants and the history of migration to Europe during colonialism and decolonization see e.g. Elizabeth Buettner, Europe after Empire Decolonization, Society, and Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017; Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations of the Second Millenium, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 499; Klaus J. Bade, Migration in European History, Malden/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, chapter 4.

[6] UNHCR global trends 2015 (URL: http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html).

[7] Kijan Espahangizi, “Das #Postmigrantische ist kein Kind der Akademie, Geschichte der Gegenwart”, June 12 2016 (URL: http://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/das-postmigrantische-kein-kind-der-akademie/). It is interesting to note that the different concepts of Europe are not easily aligned with positions on a left-right continuum. Angela Merkel at times conceptualized Europe as a process-related community-in-making, rather than setting up an idea of Europeanness which must be adhered to. See Angela Merkel, “Europas Seele ist die Toleranz”, Die Bundeskanzlerin, January 17, 2007 (URL: http://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/ContentArchiv/DE/Archiv17/Reiseberichte/eu-europas-seele-ist-die-toleranz.html

[8] New Keywords Collective, Europe / Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe” (URL: http://nearfuturesonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/New-Keywords-Collective_11-1.pdf).

[9] The “New Keywords Collective” emerged from a meeting of the research network on “The ‘European’ Question: Postcolonial Perspectives on Migration, Nation, and Race” in 2015 at King’s College London and includes scholars from across Europe. Their work has been produced as part of the Unit of Excellence LabexMed-Social Sciences and Humanities.

[10] Ibid. See also Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present, Malden/Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

[11] New Keywords Collective, Europe / Crisis.

[12] Maria do Mar Castro Varela/Paul Mecheril (eds.), Die Dämonisierung der Anderen: Rassismuskritik in der Gegenwart, Bielefeld, transcript, 2016.

[13] Caroline Arni, "“Der Historische Sinn: Ein Plädoyer“, in Avenue: Das Magazin für Wissenskultur Nr. 1, 2016, p. 82-87.

[14] Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power”, in Paul Rabinow/Nikolas Rose (eds.), The Essential Foucault, New York/London: The New Press, 2003, p. 300-318.

[15] Gabriele Dietze, Ethnosexismus, op. cit., p. 183.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Chris Allen, Islamophobia, Oxon/New York, Routledge, 2010. For Germany, see also Beverly Weber, Violence and Gender in the "New" Europe: Islam in German Culture, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013

[19] Ibid.

[20] Barbara Lüthi, “Migration and Migration History”, in Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte: Begriffe, Methoden und historische Debatten der zeithistorischen Forschung (URL: http://docupedia.de/zg/Migration_and_Migration_History).

[21] Peter Nyers, Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency, New York, Routledge, 2006.

[22] Roger Zetter, More Labels, “Fewer Refugees. Remaking the Refugee Label in an Era of Globalization”, in Journal of Refugee Studies 20/2, 2007, pp. 172-192; idem., “Labelling Refugees. Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity”, in Journal of Refugee Studies 4/1, 1991, pp. 39-62.

[23] Ibid., op. cit., p. 180.

[24] Philipp Sarasin, “Was ist Wissensgeschichte?”, in Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 36/1, 2011, p. 159-172.

[25] New Keywords Collective, “Mobility”, op. cit.

[26] Paul Gilroy, Against Race. Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

[27] David Theo Goldberg, “Racial Europeanization”, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 29/2 2006, p. 331-364; here p. 337 and p. 349. See also Trica Danielle Keaton, T.  Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Tyler Stovall, Black France⁄France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness, Durham, Duke University Press, 2012; Nicolas Bancel/Thomas David/Dominic Thomas (eds.), L’invention de la race. Des représentations scientifiques aux exhibitions populaires, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.

[28] David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State, Malden, Blackwell, 2002.

[29] Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the Two World Wars, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[30] Verena Stolcke, “Talking Culture. New Boundaries, New Rhetorics of Exclusion in Europe”, in Current Anthropology, 36/1, 1995 p. 1-24.

[31] Maria do Mar Castro Varela/Paul Mecheril, op. cit.; Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.

[32] Gabriele Dietze, op. cit., p. 177.

[33] As a reaction to the incidents in Cologne see, for example, the above-mentioned feminist group #ausnahmslos, which equally opposed sexualized violence and racism (URL: http://ausnahmslos.org/) as well as its counterpart founded by men “Not with me” (Nicht mit mir; URL:  www.nichtmitmir.eu). 

[34] Quoted in: New Keywords Collective, Europe / Crisis, op. cit.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67/2, 2006, p. 357-400, here p. 359.

[37] New Keywords Collective, “Europe / Crisis”, op. cit.

Barbara Lüthi

Barbara Lüthi is Assistant Professor of History at the History Department, University of Cologne. Her research interests cover U.S. and European Social and Cultural History, Critical Migration Studies and Migration History, Postcolonial Theory, Transnational and Global History Approaches.

Mots clefs :  / “Refugee crisis”; Europe; Migration; History of Knowledge; Intersectionality.



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