#BlackLivesMatter in Europe's Refugee Crisis

by Sylvia Arthur

It seems Europe has taken its migrant policy from the American blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy, whose 1940s anthem “Black, Brown, White” eloquently captured the indignity of the Jim Crow era:
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you's black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back
While European nations have grudgingly agreed to host 120,000 of the 500,000 refugees who’ve made the perilous journey to their shores this year, their offer of sanctuary is primarily to those fleeing the bloodshed in Syria. The same grace hasn’t been extended to those coming from outside Syria's war-torn borders, many of whom happen to be of a darker hue.

If you’re Black in this gruesome mix of migration and despair, you’re assumed to be an economic migrant exploiting the chaos of the Middle East to sneak into Europe “in search of a better life.” And Europe is committed to sending back anyone presumed to be an economic migrant.

Less than half of the migrants to Europe are from sub-Saharan Africa. Of the top ten countries of origin of those applying for asylum in Europe in 2014, only two, Eritrea and Nigeria, are in Africa. Yet up until the heartbreaking photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi went viral, the images that flooded the media were of hordes of young, dark-skinned African men “invading” European territory. This has facilitated the use of racially-coded language that reduces the pain of migrants to populist slogans (“swarms” of “marauding” Africans).

Many Syrians, with their fair skin, green eyes and blonde hair, could pass for natives of the countries in which they’ve been given haven. These refugees have often been said to be among their country’s finest, with desirable skills in their professions as doctors, lawyers, and academics that could be of use to their new countries. By contrast, African refugees are referred to in less hallowed terms: poor, uneducated, a potential burden.

This is similar to the public discourse about African Americans who’ve come face-to-face with the full force of the law. Just as Michael Brown was described by his killer as looking “like a demon,” African migrants are likewise dehumanized.

Europe’s treatment of these refugees is yet another example of the fact that Black Lives Don't Matter, wherever they are in the world. The racial empathy gap that prevents American police from seeing a 12-year-old with a toy gun as a little boy at play is the same gap that allows Europe to deny human beings from Africa an individual identity and the right to seek asylum. Just as America, “the land of the free,” has been laid bare in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, so too has Europe.

Europe’s refugees could do with the advocacy of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The intersectionality of the crisis – race, class, gender (and religion) – and the politics of who gets saved is the same affliction that besets African-American victims of state violence that the #BlackLivesMatter movement seeks to highlight.

The Mediterranean is the Atlantic of our day. Thousands of Africans en route to Europe in boats that are little more than floating coffins have transformed the warm waters of the Med into an icy graveyard. The echoes of the slave trade don’t stop there. Even where there is no rule of law, one dogma still prevails: on these death boats, racism and the racial hierarchy are implemented with shocking brutality.

Stories of Black Africans being sealed into the hull while Arabs are placed above deck are standard. Those who don’t obey orders are punished for their survival instincts, the smugglers slashing or thrashing depending on ethnicity: Black Africans are branded on their heads with knives while unruly Arabs are beaten with belts. The Africans’ crime, like those of slain African Americans, is that they’re Black and poor, conditions that condemn them to being treated less than human.

Who is speaking up for these migrants, these numbers without names? Just as #BlackLivesMatter forced us to #SayHerName, we need to be able to humanize those who’ve died in their thousands and whose lives are reduced to nothing more than dazzling, incomprehensible numbers.

And why should we care? The last fifteen years have shown us how quickly the local becomes the global. What’s happening on the streets of Tunis or Damascus has a direct link to events on the streets of Brussels and Washington. As the Indian-American author, Suketu Metha points out in his 2004 opus Maximum City, the young man working in a call centre in Mumbai today could very well be your neighbour in New York tomorrow.

African Americans know viscerally that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Members of #BlackLivesMatter have travelled to Palestine to highlight the Palestinian struggle. Palestinians in Gaza have protested in support of #BlackLivesMatter. There are #BLM chapters in Ghana and London. The refugee crisis is the next frontier in the international battle for equality.

Yes, All Lives Matter – Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi and Eritrean. But in the hell that is the new Middle Passage, some lives deserve more protection than others.

Photo: Punghi/Shutterstock

Sylvia Arthur is a Black British journalist and writer whose work focuses on identity and place. She freelanced for The Guardian, the BBC and the British Journalism Review and worked as a senior researcher/assistant producer for the BBC, ITV and Sky. She has an MA in Narrative Non-Fiction Writing at City University, London.

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