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From Asylum-Haven to Populist Isolationism

The far-right movement in Europe makes its mark on the migrant crisis

On September 2, 2015, two-year-old Alan Kurdi, his mother Rihanna, and older brother Ghalib boarded a small overcrowded dinghy off the coast of Turkey. In the following days, a photo of his body, washed up by a beach resort, became one of the most widely circulated images on Facebook.

Alan’s story is one of so many young Syrians and their families attempting to find any means to flee from the horrors of the Syrian war. More than twenty-five thousand people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea since 2015, hoping to seek refuge in Europe, or in Alan’s case, temporary refuge before relocating to Canada. These migrants hail from politically unstable nations such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, among others. Oftentimes, refugees pay premium prices to sail on boats heading to the coasts of European countries closest to them, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. These boats often have little to no safety measures, and to make as high of a profit as possible, smugglers tend to overcrowd their boats.  This overcrowding causes boats to capsize in the sea, drowning most migrants on them. 

The photo of Alan on the beach sparked a conversation online about the inhumane nature of refugee passage into Europe. The image of him shocked many people with the magnitude of the cruelty of the refugee crisis and the low value that the world has placed on the lives of migrants, particularly those from the Middle East. Many commented and shared that such a situation should have never been able to occur and rallied around the migrants and raised funding to help support those trying to find passage to Europe. However, this support only lasted as long as people’s attention was caught. The high number of tragedies of the migrant crisis and subsequent outrage over them on social media has unfortunately formed an almost social commodification of refugees and their stories on social media, a phenomenon where crises turn into trends for which users will post and share infographics and flyers for until they are inevitably forgotten in the face of the next event in the news cycle. The migrant crisis remains an issue that ebbs and surges within the public consciousness, often emerging in response to tragic events. However,  the online activism people push via social media does not translate thoroughly into changes in political policies. 

In fact, in the years succeeding 2015, there has been a meteoric rise in anti-immigration and far-right political sentiment in Europe in response to the migrant crisis. Across Europe, far-right political parties are gaining power, and a central electoral talking point in previous and future elections is immigration. In France, anti-immigration sentiment has been one of the central binders of the right-wing National Rally Party, led by Marine Le Pen, who centered her 2022 bid for the presidency on a platform that France should close its borders, or at least substantially limit immigration, to preserve the country’s values and culture. While Le Pen’s 2022 campaign was unsuccessful, she gained much support across France. She posed an intimidating threat to Emmanuel Macron’s re-election, qualifying for the second turn of elections, with many voters agreeing with her conflation of immigration with a rise in Islamic radicalism. The counter to Le Pen’s platform in the 2022 election, trailing slightly behind her in the first round of elections, was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who also targeted issues of globalization and cost of living but offered socialist solutions in contrast to Le Pen’s ultra-conservative approach. Mélenchon supporters, who comprised 22 per  cent of the vote as compared to Le Pen’s 23 per cent and Macron’s 27.8 per cent, ultimately were the deciding factor in Macron’s victory as some voted for Macron in a bid against Le Pen’s potential victory. However, over half of Mélenchon’s supporters expressed no preference between Le Pen’s right-wing platform and Macron’s centrism, and 44 per cent planned to abstain from the second round of voting. Though Mélenchon’s leftist voters may have helped place Macron in the Élysée Palace given their differences with Le Pen’s platform, they certainly do not consider him a victor representative of their political views

Le Pen’s rhetoric is anti-Islamic, but even the liberal Macron has created many laws targeting the Muslim community. His administration implemented the controversial abaya ban, a subsect of France’s 2004 law preventing religious wear in secular institutions, which subsequently affected refugees from the Middle East. Abayas are long flowing dresses that are a commonly worn casual wear item for many women from Arab cultures and follows the tenet of modesty in Islamic culture. These robes come in many colors and patterns and have become fashion statements, giving Muslim women a wide-range of self-expression. In regions where Muslims are a minority, as in much of France, wearing such an item can hold important cultural connection and significance. The Actions for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) filed an unsuccessful appeal in France’s top administrative court, the state council, contending that the ban was discriminatory because it targeted children of Muslim heritage and girls. The ADM also said that abayas are not religious wear and that Muslim girls could be targeted for following the tenets of modesty and wearing long dresses or skirts in place of abayas.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leads the Fratelli d’Italia, presenting a similar platform for curbing immigration, claiming that she would not let “Italy become Europe’s refugee camp.” During her tenure, she has promised to build more detainment centers, increase time in detention centers, and deport a higher rate of migrants seeking asylum. As of September 2023, refugees in Italy are now required to pay a 5,000 euros (CAD 7,247.40) deposit while their asylum requests are processed, or face detainment. The deposit is an impossible sum of money for the majority of migrants, who have already paid a high cost for a risky journey into Europe, are fleeing from dangerous situations, and likely do not have the ability to bring much on the rickety boats taking them across the Mediterranean. 

The rise of anti-migrant attitudes and waves of nationalism in Italy and France have rippled into several other countries in the union, with the far-right starting to gain traction and come into power in Finland, Sweden, and Spain. 

Nearly seven years after the death of Alan Kurdi, a migrant boat capsized off the coast of Greece this August, killing 78 refugees from Pakistan. Like Alan’s, their stories caught the public’s attention for a week before sinking into the cycle of migrant discourse. One has to wonder what hope is left if, after facing the dangers in their homeland and undertaking the perilous journey to find a better life, families must still sail off into an intolerant future.