Authoritarian populism on the rise across Europe

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Carlo Bastasin writes: Migration, inequality, middle class decline, the euro crisis, mistrust of the establishment — there is no shortage of explanations for the angry message voters in European countries are delivering with their ballots. However, most of the time, we dismiss the message as a temporary burst of irascibility that will eventually self-modulate. For at least 20 years, we have deemed public irritation as a negligible price for democracy.

In reality, support for radical parties has only grown. Traditional parties favoring European integration — Christian democrat and social democrat — are threatened all across the Continent. New radical parties, particularly on the far right, are popping up everywhere. They represent a powerful and minatory force with time on its side. Every four years, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) loses one million voters for purely demographic reasons. The same applies to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Victims of the area’s high youth unemployment, young voters in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and elsewhere often vote differently and unpredictably.

Those who claim that a new era is about to dawn have never understood the era in which they live. It is past time to consider these developments for what they are — a permanent change in the European political landscape. Last Sunday, Austrian presidential elections once again demonstrated that the traditional parties, elbowed aside by a xenophobic nationalist formation such as the Austrian Free Party, attract a negligible share of voters.

There are reasons to believe that this is not an occasional protest, but a step toward a new form of authoritarian populism. This trend is taking hold of Europe in much the same manner as what happened in the first half of the previous century. This may sound alarmist if not for the fact that European societies are on a slippery slope that provides momentum for authoritarian politics — a slope formed by the combined effects of the economic and migrant crises, which makes the prospect of closing national borders compelling for voters. We have already assented to barbed wire fences going up in Eastern Europe to keep refugees out. Now, Austria is erecting “walls” on the Slovenian and Italian borders. [Continue reading…]

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Refugee crisis focus shifts to North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: Abdul Kadir Mohamed Moalim has seen hell. Originally from Somalia, a country ravaged by civil war, he traveled via a refugee camp in Yemen and then to Libya. From there, he crossed the Mediterranean to Europe.

On April 16, an overloaded wooden vessel capsized on the high seas and only a few people on board managed to survive. Moalim was one of them. Now, he is in Kalamata, the Greek city that rescuers brought him to. In an interview conducted there by the BBC, he was asked if he had a message for those still in Africa who are waiting for their opportunity to flee to Europe. His answer: “It’s so dangerous,” he said. “You have to believe in your country and … stay where you are.”

Moalim bore witness to a tragedy in which up to 500 Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians drowned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That would make it the worst such accident of the last 12 months. In April 2015, a fishing boat sank while on its way from Libya toward Italy and up to 800 men, women and children died. Then, too, most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe continues to focus primarily on the war refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is often forgotten that increasing numbers of people from countries south of the Sahara are trying to head north as well. In 2015 alone, according to the European Union border control agency Frontex, 108,000 Africans made their way illegally to Europe. That represents an increase of 42 percent over 2014 — and experts believe the total is but a harbinger of what Europe may soon be facing. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t abandon America’s Afghan helpers

An editorial in the New York Times says: The House Armed Services Committee approved a version of the 2017 defense spending bill on Thursday that would leave thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked for the American government in Afghanistan in the lurch.

More than 10,000 applicants, many of whom submitted petitions years ago and are now under threat in their country, are waiting for visas to get to the United States. However, the State Department can approve only about 4,000 applications, given the number of visas currently authorized by Congress.

The committee’s bill provides no additional visas and imposes unreasonable eligibility criteria for applications made after next month. Under the bill, only interpreters who worked with military personnel in the field would be eligible for resettlement. That is senseless, since many interpreters who worked on military bases or in government offices are in similar danger. [Continue reading…]

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Syria can’t get worse? Check out the Turkish border

Politico reports: The border crossing where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees entered Turkey in the first years of the war is almost deserted. It’s been closed for a year, and any Syrian hoping to be smuggled to safety in the neighboring country risks being shot.

Just across the frontier, in Syria, the situation is infinitely worse. Some 45,000 civilians were displaced by recent fighting between moderate rebels and ISIL in mid-April, and 20,000 are sleeping out in the open, aid workers say.

“People are sitting on blankets, sleeping under the trees,” Ali al-Sheikh, a Syrian humanitarian volunteer, said at the Kilis border crossing Saturday. “They are short of drinking water. There are very few tents. There is sewage all around.”

This is the scene that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk didn’t see when they visited a model refugee camp 50 kilometers from the border last weekend. The town of Kilis, whose 90,000 inhabitants have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their warm reception of 130,000 Syrians, was deemed too dangerous to visit.

Violence is on the rise, with ISIL militants frequently firing rockets from Syria into Turkey. Since January, 17 people have been killed and 61 wounded in cross-border attacks. The latest occurred the day before Merkel and Tusk’s visit aimed at propping up the controversial EU-Turkey deal that the German chancellor regards as key to limiting the arrivals of refugees in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s failure on refugees echoes the moral collapse of the 1930s

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Patrick Kingsley writes: In 1938, representatives from 32 western states gathered in the pretty resort town of Evian, southern France. Evian is now famous for its water, but back then, the delegates had something else on their minds. They were there to discuss whether to admit a growing number of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in Germany and Austria. After several days of negotiations, most countries, including Britain, decided to do nothing.

On Monday, I was reminded of the Evian conference when British MPs voted against welcoming just 600 child refugees a year over the next half-decade. The two moments are not exactly comparable. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. But it does echo, and it does remind us of the consequences of ethical failure. Looking back at their inaction at Evian, delegates could claim they were unaware of what was to come. In 2016, we no longer have that excuse.

Nevertheless, both in Britain and across Europe and America, we currently seem keen to forget the lessons of the past. In Britain, many of those MPs who voted against admitting a few thousand refugees are also campaigning to unravel a mechanism – the European Union – that was created, at least in part, to heal the divisions that tore apart the continent during the first and second world wars.

Across Europe, leaders recently ripped up the 1951 refugee convention – a landmark document partly inspired by the failures of people such as the Evian delegates – in order to justify deporting Syrians back to Turkey, a country where most can’t work legally, despite recent legislative changes; where some have allegedly been deported back to Syria; and still more have been shot at the border.

Emboldened by this, the Italian and German governments have since joined David Cameron in calling for refugees to be sent back to Libya, a war zone where – in a startling display of cognitive dissonance – some of the same governments are also mulling a military intervention. Where many migrants work in conditions tantamount to slavery. Where three separate governments are vying for control. And where Isis runs part of the coastline.

In Greece, Europe’s leaders have forced the bankrupt government to lock up all arriving asylum seekers – and then reneged on a promise to help care for them, or move them to better-resourced countries elsewhere on the continent. The result is a dire situation on the Greek islands, where the world’s richest continent has contrived to jail babies, and then deny them access to adequate amounts of milk formula.

In Denmark, asylum seekers are forced to hand over valuables to pay for their stay, and volunteers have been prosecuted as smugglers for giving them lifts. In America, where boatloads of refugees were turned away from US ports in the 30s, more than 30 governors have refused to accept Muslim refugees. Some called for an outright ban on anyone fleeing a war that is ironically the partial result of catastrophic mistakes in American foreign policy over the past two decades. [Continue reading…]

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Austrian far-right party’s triumph in presidential poll could spell turmoil

The Guardian reports: Austria is braced for political turmoil with fears that the landslide victory for a rightwing populist and gun-carrying candidate in Sunday’s first-round presidential vote could trigger snap elections.

Norbert Hofer, of the rightwing Freedom party (FPÖ), defied pollsters’ predictions to beat the Green party’s Alexander Van der Bellen into second place, gaining 36% of the vote. The two candidates will go head to head in a run-off ballot on 22 May.

While the presidential post is mainly a ceremonial role, Hofer has threatened to make use of a right to dissolve parliament before the 2018 elections, warning other candidates in a TV debate that “you will be surprised by what can be done [by a president]”.

Hofer, a youthful 45-year-old who is partially paralysed after a paragliding accident, has campaigned for disability rights and is seen as having lent a friendly face to a party that balances virulently anti-immigration and Eurosceptic messages with leftist stances on welfare issues, led by firebrand Heinz-Christian Strache.

Hofer, who claims to protect himself in the “uncertain times” of the refugee crisis by carrying a Glock gun, scored overwhelming victories in all of Austria’s states apart from Vienna. In Styria, Burgenland and Carinthia – border states most affected by the refugee trail from the Mediterranean to central Europe – Hofer managed to gain 40% or more. [Continue reading…]

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Italy’s plan to combat Libyan migrant smugglers could mean chasing shadows

Patrick Kingsley writes: Though migration levels from Libya are no higher than they were last year, European governments are terrified that the closure of the refugee route from Turkey to Greece will lead to a fresh surge through the north African country towards Italy.

Over the past few days, these fears prompted western leaders to discuss a two-pronged response. First, Rome proposed the deportation of Italy-bound migrants back to war-torn Libya. Then Barack Obama agreed at a meeting with European allies to add US ships to ongoing anti-smuggling operations in international waters off the Libyan coast.

Italy’s defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, told Italian media that a Nato-led anti-smuggling mission could be in operation as early as July. But such haste may have both practical and ethical pitfalls. For a start, western navies may not be able to do much against smugglers if the latter stick to international waters. By this point, senior smugglers have left their boats in the hands of either expendable juniors, or co-opted migrants.

Even if Nato gets approval from Tripoli to enter Libyan waters, they will still struggle to make an impact. Most migrant boats from Libya are rubber inflatables that carry no smugglers and are boarded from the country’s shore. Only a ground presence could stop their departure: by the time these dinghies are out at sea, there is little a naval mission can do to apprehend the smugglers who sent them. [Continue reading…]

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‘My soul is in Damascus’: Portraits of life on the refugee trail

In a moving series of sketches, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad captures grueling journeys blighted by poverty and exploitation: Last summer, the Turkish port city of Izmir became the springboard for hundreds of thousands of refugees hoping to reach Greece. They came looking for smugglers to take them to sea – and lifejackets to keep them alive. Every third shop on Fevzi Pasha Boulevard, a wide shopping street that led to the smugglers’ quarter, was happy to oblige.

“Original Yamaha,” shopkeepers would shout to passing refugees. “Come in and try one.” Some shoe-sellers and tailors put their usual stock in the basements, and started selling crudely made lifejackets instead. Smugglers block-booked the rooms of nearby hotels for their clients. Greece lay just across the Aegean.

In 2015, if there was a ground zero for Europe’s migration crisis, it was here, on the western Turkish coast. But a few months on, a deal has been struck between the EU and Ankara which should see most migrants arriving in Greece being deported back to Turkey, and the picture is very different. The hotels are empty. And the shopkeepers on Fevzi Pasha Boulevard are largely back to their original stock.

Sitting in a cafe in front of the train station, a thick orange scarf wrapped around his neck, a Syrian tailor watches people timidly as his son makes castles out of sugar cubes. A few weeks ago this cafe and the square teemed with smugglers conducting their illicit trade in the open, and refugees negotiating prices. Today, two Turkish police officers stand on a street corner to scare away smugglers and their clients. [Continue reading…]

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Failed state: Can a unity government succeed in divided Libya?

Der Spiegel reports: This may be the only thing you need to know about the situation in Libya: For security reasons, the headquarters of the United Nations Special Representative for Libya is situated 500 kilometers (311 miles) away from Tripoli in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Martin Kobler’s office is located in a non-descript building in the city’s Les Berges du Lac diplomatic quarter.

For trips to Libya, he has an 18-seat propeller plane at his disposal, parked at the nearby airport. He uses it to commute several times each month to Libya. But sometimes, he isn’t given permission to land, for no apparent reason. On such occasions, the plane remains grounded, along with Kobler, in Tunis.

On a recent Sunday in April, Kobler has invited us to a meal in the restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps in a posh suburb of Tunis. The view of the Mediterranean is spectacular. A slight man with a warm glint in his eyes, Kobler, 63, was once chief of staff to former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He has also served as German ambassador to Cairo and Iraq and, most recently, as the UN special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. His task is to help create a state out of Libya at the behest of the international community. The fact that Libya was never truly a state, even under dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who was toppled in 2011, doesn’t make things any easier. Considering what he’s up against, Kobler is pursuing his mission with astounding optimism.

The situation in Libya is important for Europe for two reasons. First, because Islamic State (IS) is continuing to spread unhindered in the civil war-torn country. Second, because one of the most important routes for migrants making their way to Europe runs through Libya. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on a prominent Libyan politician as part of a broader Western effort to force Libya’s warring factions to accept the authority of a unity government backed by the United Nations.

The Treasury Department said it was adding the politician, Khalifa al-Ghweil, the leader of a self-declared government in the capital, Tripoli, to its sanctions list and would freeze any assets he might have in the United States.

The sanctions are a boost to the new unity government, which was formed under the auspices of the United Nations in December, has strong support from Western countries that are desperate to end years of turmoil in Libya. It also enjoys the allegiance of Libya’s national oil company, the central bank and some of the militias that guard the country’s oil fields. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The United Nations envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has called for western forces to help combat Islamic State in partnership with the country’s new government.

With Barack Obama due to meet four European leaders in Germany on Monday for a summit that is likely to focus on Libya, Kobler said foreign powers should offer training and military support, combined with an end to the UN arms embargo.

“The Daesh [Isis] expansion can only be stopped militarily,” he said. “There is a consensus that a united Libyan army needs training; the lifting of the weapons embargo is very important. We need the most modern weapons to finish Daesh.”

Isis has been stepping up its offensive against Libya’s oilfields. An assessment circulating in foreign missions reports that in the last two weeks the group has broken out of its base in the coastal town of Sirte in three thrusts. [Continue reading…]

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Think Merkel’s got problems now? Wait until she takes on Libya

Arne Delfs writes: Angela Merkel is pushing the boundaries of her realpolitik.

A leader whose pragmatism trumps ideology every time, the German chancellor faces international criticism, alienated voters and a rift in her coalition because of her choices in combating the refugee crisis.

That might just be the start of her difficulties. With the European Union deal she pushed with Turkey beginning to deter illegal migration, Merkel is shifting her focus to the surge in refugee flows across the central Mediterranean to Italy. And that means engaging with Libya and Egypt.

Merkel will host U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of the U.K., France and Italy in Hanover, western Germany, on Monday to discuss Libya and migration, Syria and Islamic State, along with what the White House described as additional steps NATO allies must take to address the “challenges on Europe’s eastern and southern periphery.”

German intelligence suggests some one million refugees are waiting in the Maghreb countries to cross to Europe, causing alarm in the Chancellery in Berlin, according to an official from Merkel’s party who asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations.

German foreign policy is now “driven by the domestic imperative to bring down the number of refugees: this is Merkel’s live-or-die issue,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Germany is set to become “much more active” in North Africa, and “for Merkel this is a challenge, because you have to be cautious about doing things that the public doesn’t understand.” [Continue reading…]

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UN says up to 500 migrants may have drowned on their way to Italy

The Washington Post reports: As many as 500 migrants seeking a better future in Europe may have drowned last week in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, U.N. refugee officials said Wednesday.

If true, the toll would make the incident one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants over the last year.

On Tuesday, a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spoke with some of the 41 survivors of the alleged accident who had arrived at Kalamata, a Greek town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the U.N. agency said in a statement.

“If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy,” said the agency.

The survivors included 37 men, three women and a 3-year-old child. They were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. All were rescued by a merchant ship that then brought them to Greece. [Continue reading…]

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Islam is reshaping Europe

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Robert Kaplan writes: Orientalism, through which one culture appropriated and dominated another, is slowly evaporating in a world of cosmopolitan interactions and comparative studies, as [Edward] Said intuited it might. Europe has responded by artificially reconstructing national-cultural identities on the extreme right and left, to counter the threat from the civilization it once dominated.

Although the idea of an end to history — with all its ethnic and territorial disputes — turns out to have been a fantasy, this realization is no excuse for a retreat into nationalism. The cultural purity that Europe craves in the face of the Muslim-refugee influx is simply impossible in a world of increasing human interactions.

“The West,” if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster. [Continue reading…]

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College student is removed from Southwest Airlines flight because he spoke Arabic

The New York Times reports: A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic.

The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.

He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said. But the conversation seemed troubling to a nearby passenger, who told the crew she overheard him making “potentially threatening comments,” the airline said in a statement.

Mr. Makhzoomi, 26, knew something was wrong as soon as he finished his phone call and saw that a woman sitting in front of him had turned around in her seat to stare at him, he said. She headed for the airplane door soon after he told his uncle that he would call again when he landed, and qualified it with a common phrase in Arabic, “inshallah,” meaning “god willing.”

“That is when I thought, ‘Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,’ because it was so weird,” Mr. Makhzoomi said.

That is exactly what happened. An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent came to his seat and escorted him off the plane a few minutes after his call ended, he said. The man introduced himself in Arabic and then switched to English to ask, “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?” [Continue reading…]

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How Iran coerced Afghan refugees to fight in Syria for Assad

BBC News reports: As the five-year conflict in Syria grinds on, BBC Persian has found evidence that Iran is sending thousands of Afghan men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia – in effect a “Foreign Legion” – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many have since fled the battlefield and joined the refugee trail to Europe.

In a small town in Germany, we meet “Amir”, an Afghan man in his early twenties.

He was born to refugee parents in Isfahan, Iran, and is now himself an asylum seeker in Europe.

Like most of the almost three million Afghans in Iran, he lived as a second-class citizen.

Without legal residency or identity documents, he found it hard to get an education or a job. Fear of arrest and deportation was a daily reality.

It was difficult to move around freely, get a driving license or even buy a Sim card for his mobile phone.
But one day, Amir received an offer that changed everything.

“Some Afghans, who were close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, approached me and my mates at the mosque,” he said.

“They suggested we go to Syria to help defend the Shia holy shrines from Daesh,” he added, using an acronym for the previous name of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

“They said we’d get passports and have an easy life afterwards. We’d be like Iranian citizens and could buy cars, houses…” [Continue reading…]

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Pope Francis takes 12 refugees back to Vatican after trip to Greece

The New York Times reports: Pope Francis made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday and took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane.

The action punctuated the pope’s pleas for sympathy to the plight of the refugees just as European attitudes are hardening against them.

Those taken to Rome were three families — two from Damascus and one from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour — whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war, the Vatican said in a statement as the pope departed the Greek island of Lesbos.

”The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees,” the statement said, adding that the Vatican would care for the three families.

The announcement capped a brief trip by the pope to Greece that again placed the plight of migrants at the center of his papacy.

“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said during a lunchtime visit to the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, where leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches joined him.

“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis continued. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Francis’ first papal trip in 2013 was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, to call attention to the refugees who were arriving there from Libya — or drowning before they reached shore. During his February visit to Mexico, Francis prayed beneath a large cross erected in Ciudad Juárez, just footsteps from the Mexican border with the United States, and then celebrated Mass nearby, where he spoke about immigrants. [Continue reading…]

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