Confronting the Challenge of Xenophobia

For Europeans, xenophobia is an appalling plight that presents a brilliant opportunity for the European church: to be a relevant, leading voice in postmodern Europe.

January 4th, 2012

Editor's Note: Building on Mark Glanville's Old Testament musings, Comment explores the reception of immigrants and refugees in Europe. Melissa Wear asks what present-day political responsibilities and resources Christians have for strangers in a strange land.

"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
—Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

For the past two years, the European debt and banking crisis has captured the attention of world leaders, policymakers, academics, and the media. The crisis has been the focus of every recent European Union (EU) summit, and it was also the primary issue at the recent G20 meeting. Rightfully so, as this crisis threatens to take down the entire financial system. But beyond the political squabbling, treaty rules, and financial malaise lies a crisis of a different sort. Europe has a xenophobia problem. Immigrants are among the most vulnerable to xenophobic and racist crime.

Eurostat reports that as of 2010, non-national immigrants (people who are not citizens of their country of residence) make up 6.5 percent of the EU population, or 32.5 million people. The immigrant population is around the size of the populations of Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Portugal combined. Around 36.5 percent of these non-nationals come from other non-EU European states (like Turkey and Albania), while 25.2 percent come from Africa, 20.9 percent from Asia, and the rest from other areas in the world.

Attitudes toward immigrants across Europe, on the whole, are pessimistic. The European Social Survey conducted a survey on immigration in 2002. Around 68 percent responded that immigrants cause more crime, 40 percent responded that immigrants take away more jobs, and 38 percent responded that immigrants make the country worse. Each of these responses was higher than the positive answer. The German Marshall Fund produced a more recent survey in 2009. Public opinion in the UK is especially negative toward immigrants, with 65 percent of the respondents viewing immigrants as a problem more than an opportunity. A majority of the Spanish also saw immigration as a problem, while the Germans, Dutch, French, and Italians were split on this question. These two surveys paint a bleak picture of the negative attitude toward immigrants.

But what happens when sour opinions evolve into real action? The European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) collects data on racist and xenophobic acts towards immigrants. Only twelve out of twenty-seven member states report statistics on this issue. Data is also skewed because each member defines xenophobic and racist acts differently, and some have changed their recording policies over the years. The UK employs the broadest definition, including crimes and incidents short of criminal charges. An act is deemed xenophobic if the victim or another person perceives it to be xenophobic. A xenophobic act in the UK could include slander, threats, harassment, burglary, assault, vandalism, and so on. In 2010, a striking ten out of twelve member states reported a rise in racist and xenophobic acts from 2000 to 2008.

The FRA also conducted an even more comprehensive survey in 2009 detailing the responses of 23,500 immigrants. Around 20 percent of all Roma and Sub-Saharan respondents reported experiencing at least one incident of assault, being threatened, or serious harassment in the previous year that they felt was racially motivated. Save for ex-Yugoslav respondents, the majority of the incidents were perpetrated by a member of the majority population. Most interestingly, between 56 percent and 78 percent of assaults or threats are not reported to police. Therefore, official country statistics cannot capture the depth and breadth of this problem.

The cause of the rise in xenophobia and racism in Europe is complex. Some studies conclude that economic concerns, such as unemployment, motivate these crimes. Another convincing causal pathway is identity. Immigrants are seen as the "other"—different from the majority population. Quite a few European countries, such as Sweden, are homogenous, so immigrants are easily singled out based on something as basic as appearance.

Another interesting dynamic is the rise of far-right parties in many European countries. These parties capitalize on the negative sentiments towards immigrants and run on anti-immigrant platforms. They perpetuate an image that immigrants are detrimental to society. In 2007, the Swiss People's Party in Switzerland (SVP), a far-right party, won the highest percentage of seats in Parliament. In their campaign, they featured a poster that depicted a white sheep kicking a black sheep off of a map of Switzerland. The UN condemned the poster as xenophobic propaganda, but the SVP still won. The image is a powerful symbol of the vitriol that persists in far-right parties, and offers a sobering commentary on the behaviours and values that are too often rewarded in European politics.

These statistics can seem alarming. Innocent people potentially face discrimination, isolation, and even violence at some point in their lifetime. While the government plays a pivotal role in reporting incidents, tracking statistics, and creating meaningful policy, this irrational antipathy towards immigrants is about something deeper. It poses a moral challenge for Europe and its people, and the moment calls for the Church to reassert itself as a balm in European society.

After the 2011 massacre in Norway, Pope Benedict XVI warned of rising xenophobic ideology across Europe. In a 2009 address to the Christian Muslim Forum in London, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams warned of anger stemming from the financial crisis turning into xenophobia. He advised Christians to dust off Christian values such as prudence and temperance to help curtail the trend. N.T. Wright, in an Easter address in 2008, attacked the British government's immigration policy. He cited Peter's message to Cornelius, concerning how God is welcoming to all people in his family, and criticized the government's policy as xenophobic, unworthy of a majority Christian country.

Christian leaders in Europe clearly have something to say on this issue, but the continuing secularization of Europe is an obstacle. Statistics from the European Values Survey show that European churches attract fewer attendants each year, though three out of four Europeans say they are religious; this is known as a "church-free spirituality" or "believing without belonging." Part of this may stem from negative views of religion. The Eurobarometer shows that 46 percent of Europeans believe "the place of religion in our society is too important." Combating xenophobia in Europe calls for the reinstatement of the power of Christian values: compassion, the dignity of every human being, and the powerful concept of imago dei. These Christian values are also compatible with European values of equality, which opens the door to cooperation with untraditional allies. The same religious tradition that inspired modern European values can renew those values today.

Of course, Christian engagement in European politics is not new, and it has even been institutionalized through the formation of Christian Democrat parties. There are twenty-five Christian Democrat (CD) parties in Europe, and there is the European People's Party (a CD party) at the European Parliament level. Through the CD parties and other formal and informal political mechanisms, the European political culture has allowed for Christian influence on different issues. Xenophobia is yet another challenge that CD parties could seek to address at a supranational and national level.

The European debt crisis and burgeoning economic woes cannot continue to defer this issue. As the financial crisis continues to create hardships and force difficult sacrifices for Europeans, it will be even more tempting to place the blame for their circumstances on immigrants. Indeed, the United States has experienced this irrational scapegoating of immigrants, as one sector of the right wing in that country has voiced increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric and passed controversial legislation in Alabama, Arizona, and other states. Previously bipartisan legislation such as the DREAM Act, for instance, is now a point of bitter partisan disagreement.

While there are valid concerns about immigration in both settings, the hyperbolic and reactionary anti-immigrant sentiment that leads to unjust laws, discrimination, and violence on both sides of the Atlantic is primarily a distraction from the real problems that face the general public—native and immigrant. For Europeans, xenophobia is an appalling plight that presents a brilliant opportunity for the European Church: to be a relevant, leading voice in postmodern Europe.

 

Melissa Wear is a graduate student at American University in Washington D.C., where she studies International Affairs: Europe. Her main areas of interest are European integration, European immigration policy, European foreign and security policy, the Euro, European Enlargement and US-EU relations. She is a native of Buffalo, NY, where she met her husband, Michael, in middle school. In her spare time, she likes to read, bake and watch funny cat videos. Melissa lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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