barbed wire

This is the full version of my International New York Times article on the attitudes to migrants in Eastern and Western Europe. It was published earlier this month under the headline ‘Is Eastern Europe Really More Racist Than the West?’. (I cannot publish the full version of my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until four week after the original publication.)

Soldiers putting up miles of razor wire fencing to keep out refugees. A mother and child stuck in a field of mud. A truck parked on the highway between Budapest and Vienna containing the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees. The scenes over the past few weeks from the Eastern borders of Europe have generated horror and revulsion. ‘Have Eastern Europeans no sense of shame?’, asked the Polish American historian Jan Gross. Another historian, the German-born Jan-Werner Müller, demanded that the EU ‘ostracize’ Hungary, ‘a country no longer observing its values’, by cutting off funding and suspending its voting rights.

For many, East Europeans’ lack of generosity towards refugees reflects, in the words of one Guardian columnist,  a fundamental ‘political and cultural gap’ that divides the continent. East European nations have only recently thrown off the Soviet yoke and are new to the values of liberal democracy. Many are homogenous and unused to immigration. Hence, many suggest, the insularity and prejudice.

Recent history has certainly shaped the character of East European societies. But are they really more xenophobic or hostile to migrants than those of the West?

Flicking through the newspapers in recent weeks, one might be forgiven for thinking that until Hungary started putting up fences, the European Union had open borders, and had welcomed migrants only with kindness and gentleness. In fact for 25 years, the EU has been constructing what many justly call ‘Fortress Europe’, keeping out migrants not with fences but with warships, helicopters and surveillance drones. One of the reasons that migrants are now coming through the Balkans is because EU patrols have effectively blocked off the southern routes, particularly from Libya into Italy.

Hungary’s treatment of migrants has certainly been brutal. But is it that different from policies adopted by Britain or France?

Some 6000 migrants currently live in what is in effect Europe’s largest shanty town on the outskirts of Calais. A report last month by the University of Birmingham and the Doctors of the World group described the conditions in what has come to be known as ‘the Jungle’ as ‘diabolical’, with tents overrun by rats, water contaminated by feces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis.  ‘I lived like this in Darfur’, one man told a British journalist. ‘I could not believe a place like this existed in Europ

The migrants are confined to the Jungle because Britain refuses to let what Prime Minister David Cameron described as ‘a swarm’ cross the Channel. Were the Jungle in Hungary or Poland, there would no doubt be an international outcry. Because it is outside Calais, few historians or journalists have bothered to write furious condemnations of the intolerance and xenophobia it exposes.

afghan migrant clais jungle

It is true that Western European nations have had greater exposure to immigration than countries of the East. But how has that affected social attitudes?

The Atlantic magazine’s Heather Horn surveyed some of the data recently According to the 2005-2009 World Values Survey, 14 per cent of Poles and 24 per cent of Hungarians would not want an immigrant as a neighbour. In France, however, the figure stands at an extraordinary 36 per cent. The most recent World Values Survey, conducted between 2010 and 2104, did not poll Hungary or France. But it showed that the proportion of Germans objecting to immigrant neighbour (21.4%) is almost identical to that in Romania (21.3%) – and three times higher than in Poland , where only 7.2 raised objections.

The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey looked at differences between Eastern and Western Europe. It found that East Europeans were less likely to think that it was ‘a good thing for any society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures’. Thirty per cent of Hungarians, and 22 per cent of Poles disagreed, compared to just one in 10 of the French population and 13 per cent of Britons and Germans.

But when asked about specific groups, the picture changed. In Eastern Europe anti-Semitism is particularly strong, while in Western Europe people tend to be more hostile to Muslims. The Pew survey found that 29 per cent of Poles and Hungarians had an unfavourable view of Jews. Twenty-seven per cent of Britons, and a full 69 per cent of Italians had an unfavourable view of Muslims, while 30 per cent of Germans disliked Turks. Western Europeans, in other words, may appear more tolerant when talking in the abstract, but are as intolerant as East Europeans when it comes to their attitudes towards specific groups. The ‘cultural gap’ may just be that Western Europeans are more polished in using the language of tolerance while in reality being equally intolerant of the ‘Other’.

The largest far-right party in Europe is not in Poland or Hungary but in France. Ninety per cent of the French people may say they are at ease with a society comprising different races, religions and cultures, but almost one in five voted for the Front National leader Marine le Pen in the 2012 Presidential election.

In the Netherlands, the populist politician Geert Wilders recently told Parliament that the refugee crisis amounted to an ‘Islamic invasion’, echoing the words of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Wilders has called for the Qur’an to banned and for an end to the building of mosques. Every recent opinion poll shows his PVV party in the lead. It is not inconceivable that Wilders and Le Pen could end up as leaders of their respective countries. Where then for the great cultural divide between East and West?

The treatment of migrants by East European nations has been reprehensible and needs challenging. But there is something equally  nasty in the chorus of condemnation that East Europe has faced. Portraying Eastern Europeans as lacking ‘our’ values, and as particularly xenophobic and narrow-minded, serves only to disguise the role that west European nations have played in fostering hostility and intolerance. Demonizing East Europeans is no answer to the way that political leaders throughout Europe have helped demonize migrants.


The photo is of an Afghan migrant at the Calais Jungle, © Reuters/Pascal Rossignol



  1. I don’t really think you know must about this. The reason why the Libyan route is more the less closed isn’t because EU are returning boats, but because the situation i Libya has hindered mass traffic. EU hasn’t never returned boats. Eu hasn’t been closed in the last years, in fact the migration from fugitives has been growing in the last years. The reason why it has really taken off this year is because Germany and Sweden ( and partially Norway) has said come, come. If you look at the numbers only half of the fugitives (numbers are not clear, but 1.2 million is a guess) are from Syria the rest are from Afghanistan, Iraq,Pakistan and God knows where. especially interesting is that about 45.000 (mostly) young men of Hazara decent has arrived in Sweden, Germany ( + a couple other countries ). Sweden has received at least 22.000 this year, they all claim to be minors. Because Sweden until last week didn’t make age tests. Now the swedes expenses to this group is equal to the afghan state payroll. Have a thought.

    Regarding Poland. The Poles has been pissed off by the West for centuries, they are now only 25 years into their statehood as a really independent state. That they don’t want to receive thousands of muslims fugitives I think I understand. They just have to look around in their neighbour countries and conclude, that it’s a big challenge. It is. In Sweden only half of this group has joined the labourmarket after 7 years.
    The rest, well they live on public welfare. This is a big problem, and now the problem has grown.

    • I don’t really think you know must about this. The reason why the Libyan route is more the less closed isn’t because EU are returning boats, but because the situation i Libya has hindered mass traffic.

      The chaotic conditions in Libya have, if anything, aided those who wish to cross the Mediterranean. The collapse of Libyan state authority began in 2011. Only this year have numbers crossing from Libya fallen. Why? Largely because Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, has expanded its military operation, receiving a 15 per cent budget increase this year and a whopping 54 per increase for next year. The EU has also sought to externalize its controls into non-EU controls and to pay their (often brutal) poce and army to act as EU border guards – Libya, Morocco, now Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia in the near future.

      Migration routes to Europe have always been shaped by EU border policy. As legal routes into Europe have been shut down, so people have taken to new irregular routes. Until 1991 there was an open border between Spain and the Maghreb (which caused no problems at all). Spain’s entry into the EU (in 1986) forced it to close that border, to militarize controls and to externalize its border into Morocco. This led to a rise of (irregular) migration into Spain and then, as that border was increasingly militarized, the creation of new routes from elsewhere in North Africa, most notably Libya. Greater militarization of that route has led to new routes via the Balkans. No doubt new irregular will now spring up, too.

      EU hasn’t never returned boats. Eu hasn’t been closed in the last years

      Not only has the EU deported tens of thousands, there have been many cases where EU member countries have refused to help migrant boats in distress, and treated rescuers as criminals.

      The reason why it has really taken off this year is because Germany and Sweden ( and partially Norway) has said come, come.

      Their policies (especially Germany’s) was a response to the influx not a cause of it.

      migration from fugitives has been growing in the last years… only half of the fugitives…thousands of muslims fugitives

      Interesting use of the word ‘fugitives’. It sums up the view of many (including seemingly yours) that all migrants and refugees are criminals.

  2. Galaxian

    Although I wonder if the current desires to limit immigration reflect hatred toward foreigners and their cultures. The USA at least has gone through this business cyclically in the past; we had our “Japs go home” signs in the 1920s and the internment camps during the war, and most of the Japanese weren’t even actual immigrants, but 2nd or 3rd generation settlers. Foreigners have usually been welcomed in limited numbers, although there was a definite preference for those from countries sharing cultural and racial characteristics, Northern Europeans versus Polish, Irish, and Italian for instance. Yet today people are more cosmopolitan and the sight of Indians, Iranians, or Chinese on American streets is no longer odd. Instead, the new fears stem from a perception that parts of the non-Western world, notably in Africa and the Mideast, are going downhill into chaos and will eject unmanageable flows of persons seeking better conditions here. And that our culture may be diluted as a result, or that our economic resources in land, housing, schooling, and health care will bend. While a minority of 10% sounds small, it’s hardly trivial, especially if that minority has a high birthrate while the natives reproduce below replacement. When the minorities are large enough, they may demand autonomous zones or changes in laws the host population is unwilling to grant. I don’t know as much about Europe, but imagine that given the long history of ethnic wars and re-drawings of national boundaries in Europe, Europeans are even more anxious than Americans are about the onset of immigrant communities large enough to make up a significant fraction of the national population. I’m not sure that labeling these fears as xenophobia or paranoia does justice to the complexity of what the native populations feel.

  3. damon

    There is such a range of views on this current migrant crisis that I’m not sure there’s any right or wrong view.
    Of course you have general compasion and our countries should be doing everything we can to help the situation, but as for taking in large numbers of the people now in motion across Europe, Asia and Africa, I don’t think anyone has particularly winning arguments. Just look at the hundreds of comments that have been made under recent Guardian articles online. Is Kenan’s view really so much stronger than those who have said that taking in such large numbers of people is madness?
    You may see it as a better view, but that’s just a choice one makes. Myself, I don’t really know what to do.

    In a Guardian piece about Sweden the other day, the guy who wrote it mentioned a town of ten thousand that he knew which now had a thousand new people to try and integrate. That could be extremely difficult, at least in the short term. And in the long term, who knows what might happen?
    These are a couple of lines he wrote about Sweden’s immigration experiences so far:

    ”It has gone better than anyone might have expected, but not without friction. Poor areas have become ghettoised. Some have become homes to gang violence: there have been 40 unsolved gang murders in Sweden in the last four years. That figure would have been unthinkable in the high noon of social democracy.”

  4. It’s a fair, seemingly well researched and certainly well reasoned article. That the base motives for resistance to immigration are shared East and West, is not that surprising and neither is the question of proximity to the problem as an influence. I’ve no idea what the Magyar equivalent of NIMBY is but I imagine the sentiment will translate universally. I wonder more about what the correlations look like when you compare on the basis of economic demographics rather than geography or ethnicity. I could be wrong but I suspect that in general, the better educated and better off your average citizen, the less the politicians need pander to (or are able to exploit) fears about immigration. I’d also anticipate negative effects from falling median incomes, a shrinking middle class or a dispossessed working class. Reduced social mobility, and increasingly unaffordable education and healthcare all increase anxiety and as with many things, the direction of travel is just as important than the baseline figures. The issue is less about national cultures and more about your position geographically, economically or historically within the EU. It used to be a very exclusive club. It opened it’s membership a little but apart from the fact that there’s still a North Western section roped off for the rich, the truly objectionable part is, as you identify, the “Fortress Europe” aspect. – To extend the club analogy – We apply a strict door policy and outsource security to the cruellest and most frightening thugs we can muster. The brute motive is precisely to keep shanty-towns as far as possible from European cities… The net effect of tolerating such brutality on our borders, or from our neighbours, is instead bringing these horrors ever closer. Continue this path and we’ll only see reduced democratic space and increasingly brutal policing on our own streets as we struggle to contain such desperation, fear and despair. We needn’t demonise anyone. We are all behaving despicably if we think that conditions found in the Jungle are not our problem because they are outside our borders. They aren’t any more acceptable in Darfur either. …. and to make another seemingly obvious point about what we cannot forget is largely forced migration….. Bombing peoples homes and cities to rubble does not prevent the survivors from running. If our strategy then is to make NorthWest more terrifying and inhospitable an option for their flight than South or East, then for pity’s sake let’s stop.

  5. The number of Fugitives/Immigrants, you chose, from Libya had halved this year in October from last year ( 7.500 – 15.000) one reason could be a number of Syrians and Palestinians has taken the route through Turkey. EU still saves people in this area. – You are right that EU are returning ‘fugitives’, Germany has returned lots of africans, people from Nigeria, Ghana, Norway is doing it. Everyone is.

    But by anyones guess they take in 1 million Syrians this year. You don’t think thats enough. Fine.
    Regarding Sweden It’s my opinion that the swedes really tolerant policy regarding young men has resulted in a massive pull effect. Those who has arrived can phone/skype home and tell about rather luxury accommodation, new laptops, clothes. People who are taking care of everything for them. – And of course they hope of family reunion.
    The main problem is that when reality comes by, most of them will have big problems in the swedish school system, like many young people with foreign background.

    Funny though some of your references on EU policy in the Mediterranean are from 2011/12. Ja, ja.

    I have never said anyone is a criminal. But if you don’t try to make some distinction you have free borders. You seem to forget. That a fugitive is a person, when recognized as such a person has the right to a living, a room to live in ( a house, appartement) free hospital,schools, university dentist and so on. An immigrant don’t have these rights.

    All these rights has to be financed. And of course there is a limit to the burden you can place on the taxpayers.

    • The number of Fugitives/Immigrants, you chose

      OK, perhaps it’s a problem of translation. Perhaps by ‘fugitive’ you actually mean ‘refugee’. A fugitive is someone fleeing justice, a refugee is some fleeing persecution. If it’s not a problem of translation, then I cannot see how you can claim ‘I have never said anyone is a criminal’.

      But by anyones guess they take in 1 million Syrians this year.

      It is possible that there will in total be a million refugee applications in Germany this year, but the number of refugees accepted is far lower. And if we want to talk numbers, Turkey with a population less than that of Germany is already host to more than 2 Syrian million refugees. Lebanon with a population of less than one tenth that of Germany hosts 1.2 million refugees.

      Regarding Sweden It’s my opinion that the swedes really tolerant policy regarding young men has resulted in a massive pull effect. Those who has arrived can phone/skype home and tell about rather luxury accommodation, new laptops, clothes. People who are taking care of everything for them.

      I cannot speak of the Swedish debate, but certainly in Britain the claims of ‘benefit tourism’ are fantasy. Most refugees are fleeing persecution, most migrants come to work.

      Funny though some of your references on EU policy in the Mediterranean are from 2011/12. Ja, ja.

      You claimed initially that the ‘EU hasn’t never returned boats’. My point is that there is a long history of EU countries not just returning migrants but of refusing to help them in distress. Of course, you can close your eyes to that history, but it won’t change it.

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