Building walls has become our dangerous obsession

Alan Philps looks at varying global attitudes towards refugees

Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.  Aris Messinis / AFP
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For the moment, Donald Trump’s plan to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border is still an unfunded promise. But look to the southern borders of Europe and you will find fences and walls springing up like mushrooms after rainfall.

Quietly, without the Trump bombast, Hungary has strung barbed wire along its southern frontier. Macedonia has closed its border with Greece to migrants and is fortifying it with a fence. The same is true for Slovenia, which is stringing razor wire along its border with Croatia.

The result is that refugees hoping to get to northern Europe to claim asylum are either stranded in sub-zero weather in the Balkans or blocked inside the borders of Greece, where 62,000 live in tents, abandoned buildings or other inadequate conditions.

Greece is struggling under a six-year regime of austerity which is designed – so far without any sign of success – to reduce its crippling burden of debt. The Greek government has to cope with a humanitarian disaster at a time when its coffers are empty and national morale is at a low ebb.

The way Mr Trump is setting about fulfilling his promise to “regain control” of US borders has – with some justification – been criticised in Europe as racist, inflammatory and overtly anti-Muslim. But in the eyes of the Greeks, the only difference between Washington and Brussels is the tone of his remarks.

Nicos Devletoglou, an economics professor at the University of Athens, accuses European ­Union leaders of rampant hypocrisy. How can Brussels criticise the United States, he asks, when the EU “continues to turn a blind eye to the formidable barbed wire fortifications erected all along the northern frontiers of Greece by its neighbours?”

The hypocrisy is made more apparent by an opinion survey of attitudes to immigration in 10 EU countries. In response to the statement, “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped”, more than half of respondents – 55 per cent – said yes.

The figures need to be put in some context. The survey was conducted after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015, allowing 1.1. million to enter the country and at a time when right-wing parties are exploiting the migration crisis and fears of further terrorist attacks.

Bizarrely the most Islamophobic country, with 71 per cent agreeing that all Muslim migration should be halted, was Poland, which has a Muslim population of 0.1 per cent, and is not on any migration route. So the respondents were not talking about their personal experience, probably having never seen a Muslim except on TV.

Some of the lower levels of Islamophobia were recorded in two countries with prominent Muslim populations – Britain (where 47 per cent agreed with the statement) and Spain (41 per cent). Nevertheless the message is clear: if there was a European Trump who, like the American president, suspended refugee arrivals and imposed a 90-day ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries – an order since blocked by the US courts – he would have a lot of support.

So the shining halo that Europe likes to parade over its welcome to refugees is a fantasy, except for one exception: Mrs Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to all comers in 2015. But that decision may prove to be a costly one for her in the general election later this year. In any case, Germany is now about to resume applying the asylum rules which it had suspended in a generous act of compassion. From March asylum seekers who apply in Germany will be returned to the first EU country they landed in – usually Greece or Italy.

The US and the EU are united by a grossly exaggerated perception of the size of the local Muslim population. According to polling last year by Ipsos-MORI, in France the average guess is that 31 per cent of the population is Muslim, when it is actually 7.5 per cent. In the US, perceptions are similarly inaccurate, with average guesses of 17 per cent against actual figures of 1 per cent. It is as if the size of minority populations is seen to be in proportion to their coverage on TV.

There is more than just Muslims worrying these populations – most likely a feeling that governments are not in control of their countries in an age of globalisation, and certainly not in control of their borders. This is painfully true of Europe. The EU allowed passport-free movement inside most of its member states before thinking of a hard external border.

The contrast with Canada is illuminating. Nowadays the smiling face of the youthful and progressive prime minister Justin Trudeau welcoming refugees from Syria represents Brand Canada. For nine years until 2015, Canada had a right-wing populist government, but it did not clamp down on accepting refugees for the simple reason that Canadians had confidence in the vetting process: refugees cannot reach Canada by land or in leaky wooden boats, so all arrivals are carefully chosen. Many are sponsored by religious or community groups, ensuring they can integrate speedily. The top six source countries in 2014 were Iraq, Eritrea, Iran, Congo, Somalia and Syria, four of which are on the proposed US travel ban list.

Canada is blessed in its geography. But there is a lesson here for all countries. Relatively high levels of immigration can be tolerated if people believe that the government is in control of the borders and the process. This is clearly not true with the EU: its quixotic abolition of internal borders without a hard external frontier is undermining trust – perhaps fatally – in the whole European project.

As for the US, the vetting of refugees seems robust already, and ought to inspire confidence. But Mr Trump has fatally confused the refugee vetting issue with the porous southern border with Mexico. This is a legitimate issue of concern, but he has eased his way to power by stoking distrust of Islam.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps