Europe’s refugee crisis, which worsened significantly in 2015, has incited forceful and sometimes contradictory rhetoric from politicians across the political spectrum and indeed beyond the continent. The arrival of unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers moving across the Mediterranean and through the Western Balkans has not only strained national asylum systems, but triggered a shift in the political landscape. Populist and far-right groups in Europe have sharpened their rhetoric, using tougher, more enforcement-laden language to reassure voters they have control of a situation many constituents see as slipping from their grasp. These reactions have not been limited to the far right, as mainstream politicians have co-opted such rhetoric in a bid to recapture votes from rising nationalist and anti-immigration opposition parties.
In some countries, the use of stronger language has gone hand-in-hand with knee-jerk policy responses to restrict refugee flows. The November 13 Paris terrorist attacks set off a new round of fear-mongering, based on early reports that one of the terrorists had a Syrian passport (authorities later confirmed all identified attackers were EU nationals, and the passport found was fraudulent), triggering an announcement from the Polish government that it would rescind its commitment to participate in the European Union (EU) relocation scheme. Such reactions stretched beyond Europe as the debate in the United States turned sharply negative after the Paris attacks, with calls to halt the resettlement of already vetted Syrian refugees and block the additional 10,000 Syrians proposed by the Obama administration for resettlement over the coming year. And in the wake of the shootings in San Bernadino, California by a U.S.-born citizen of Pakistani heritage and his immigrant wife from Pakistan, leading Republican candidate Donald Trump went to the greatest and most controversial extreme yet: advocating a total ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Some mainstream governing parties in Europe have attempted to balance a more welcoming position toward refugees with a pragmatic security focus, distancing themselves from populist stances. Within days of the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande reconfirmed his country’s intention to welcome 30,000 refugees over the next two years—counter to calls from the far-right Front National to halt new arrivals. Similarly, in the United States, President Barack Obama directly challenged the demands to stop admission of Syrian refugees as contrary to American values. The diversity of policy responses and reactions and the intensity of emotion surrounding the topic have made clear the deepening polarization of Western politics.Anti-Immigration Rhetoric on the Far RightThe refugee crisis has consolidated far-right positions in many countries. In Scandinavia, the right’s sharp rhetoric sits in stark juxtaposition to the region’s long history of generous humanitarian policies. The far-right Sweden Democrats have been openly hostile to refugees, suggesting that “those on their way to Sweden should stay out. Many of those already here should go home.” That position has driven the party’s increasing popularity: some polls now place it as one of the top three parties in Sweden.Political parties long hostile to immigrants and minorities have used the crisis as a springboard for greater anti-immigration rhetoric. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has invoked a clash of civilizations, pre-empting criticism of such language by saying he wants to remove the “muzzle of political correctness” from the debate. With the same justification, Donald Trump and other Republican U.S. presidential candidates have used increasingly harsh rhetoric to win over the party’s conservative base, campaigning to conduct mass deportations, end birthright citizenship, and erect new walls with Mexico and even Canada.Words themselves have become polarizing. Politicians have been vilified for using evocative language, such as “hordes” or “swarms,” that serve to both dehumanize and paint a more desperate picture than may be the case, fueling public concerns. Similarly, advocates and journalists alike have fixated on the correct terminology and whether to refer to those arriving as migrants, refugees, or both. Al Jazeera, for example, decided to only use the word “refugee,” rather than “migrant,” despite the fact that many of the new arrivals in Europe will not qualify for protection. The subsequent debate has demonstrated how quickly factual labels can become misleading and confuse rather than elucidate core issues.Finally, rhetoric focused on religious extremism and immigration has obscured other unsettling dynamics. While Europe and the United States have focused on dangers associated with newcomers and minorities—terrorists posing as Syrian refugees, the radicalization of Muslim youth, and the risks of jihadist recruitment—a quieter, yet also dangerous trend has emerged: the radicalization of far-right youth. Cities have reported local violence and organized recruitment among neo-Nazi groups, while countries such as Canada, Germany, and Sweden have seen a sharp increase in attacks on immigrants and refugees.Is Populism Now Becoming Mainstream?As populist parties gain new support in countries such as France and the Netherlands, mainstream politicians have embraced, rather than rejected, some of their language and demands in order to rally constituents and maintain power. In the face of government collapse over budget negotiations in Sweden, for example, six parties agreed to a series of policy shifts, including increasing forced returns of those not granted refugee status and giving temporary instead of permanent residence permits to some refugee groups. While the facility of coalition politics shines through, this illustrates the growing fear of downfall in the face of far-right popularity.At the same time, internal divisions in some coalition governments have emerged after years of coherent strength. The public divisions between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and some of her most senior lieutenants threaten management of German immigration and asylum policy, even as the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) gains in popularity. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron is negotiating changes to benefits access for EU citizens, in an effort to stave off a schism within his own party concerning EU membership while not ceding ground to the UK Independence Party (UKIP).Meanwhile, Central and Eastern European countries with less experience with immigration and diversity have rejected calls for burden-sharing with other EU countries and declared they will not accept non-Christian refugees, whom they say will have difficulty integrating in their societies. Not limited to the far right, the Czech president warned Muslim refugees may try to implement sharia law, while Polish leaders invoked fear of disease. Politicians on the left have raised similar fears, with Slovakia’s socialist Prime Minister Robert Fico refusing to relocate non-Christian asylum seekers and sounding the alarm about the threat of Muslim immigration. Such statements have not all been met with support—following Fico’s comments, the EU-level Party of European Socialists threatened to expel his Direction-Social Democracy Party.Emerging in the wake of the recession and the eurocrisis, the popularity of far-left parties in Greece (Syriza, now the ruling party) and Spain (Podemos) demonstrates that populism does not always equate with an anti-immigration position. Not only have populist positions spilled into the mainstream, but the left-right dichotomy across Europe has become more blurred, as traditional reactions along the political spectrum have splintered.Implications of This PolarizationPublics faced with a seemingly unending, chaotic stream of immigrants and asylum seekers are losing faith that their leaders can find durable solutions. Even European publics who showed overwhelming support for refugees just a few months ago have been pushed to their limits with the unrelenting pace of new arrivals, with Germany alone on track to accept 1 million people in 2015. The drivers of anxiety about immigration cannot be reduced to a simple correlation with the scale of flows, however, as they include overlapping factors such as economic inequality, overriding loss of trust in government and elites, and perceived cultural threats—but these have all been made acute by the fast-paced, constantly shifting refugee and migrant inflows. These fears, in turn, have been opportunistically channeled toward antipathy against migrants by those politicians seeking to score quick political gains, creating a dual debate across Europe and beyond that will extend into 2016 and perhaps long after that.