Europe's Refugee Nightmare Has Greater, Unseen Risks

The refugees' arrival exacerbates existing immigrant tensions that already are no stranger to violence.

Sincere as humanitarian feelings in Europe no doubt are, the influx of Syrian refugees carries huge threats. The problem is less the refugees themselves than that their arrival exacerbates existing immigrant tensions that already are no stranger to violence. It raises the prospect of still more violence, not just from would-be jihadists but also from other elements in the immigrant community as well as a growing number of resentful European natives, a pattern that will rend Europe's social fabric and detract further from the continent's already limited economic prospects.

Long before the Syrians began arriving, Europe's immigrant Muslim community had grown large and dissatisfied enough to cause considerable social strain. Putting aside the occasional jihadi, feelings of isolation and a distinct lack of economic opportunity had driven people to antisocial behavior. Emblematic are the riots that occurred in the banlieues of Paris in 2005 and all the smaller follow-on riots that have taken place every year since. Back in 2005, French officials tried to pin the discontent on Islamist motives, but it quickly became apparent that the roots were more complex and lay in economic and social grievances, a fact that has only gained reinforcement since. Nor is it just France. Turkish immigrants in Germany, though less violent, have expressed the same resentments, so much so, in fact, that their newspapers have frequently described Chancellor Merkel's efforts at outreach with the word "discrimination." Much of this immigrant leadership has even refused to attend government conferences aimed at calming tension. Similar complaints and the strains to which they lead have emerged among immigrant groups all over Europe, from Scandinavia to Greece.

Resentments are no less severe among Europe's native working population. Though it is popular among the intellectual and media elite to dismiss any native objections as racist, it is unfair to pass over this complex matter so easily. However much racism there is, on both sides, the concerns of these people deserve attention. It is, after all, their villages, not the precincts of the elite, that have radically changed with the growth of immigrant communities. It would deny human nature to imply those involved have no reason to feel alienated and fearful in the face of such change. Europe's high rates of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, have only compounded the problem. It is, after all, hard to be welcoming when in France, some 25 percent of young people are without work, when in Italy almost 45 percent of them are out of work, and almost 50 percent in Spain. On the contrary, this kind of pressure tempts people to blame the newcomers for their plight. As unjust as such feelings may be, they are nonetheless an understandable fact of life, one that has found expression in political and anti-social action. 

In the face of these growing strains, Europe's elite has failed. Where immigrant grievances are concerned, it has done little to integrate these people into the economy, much less into the larger culture. On the contrary, existing structures seem designed to keep immigrants isolated and limit their economic opportunities. European schools, for example, have few if any bilingual facilities. The common practice in Europe of designating students as university-bound or not early in their school careers leaves immigrant children with no means to catch up after overcoming early language and cultural disadvantages. Europe has nothing like America's high school equivalency diploma. Officials are only now beginning experiment with affirmative action, and then only on the most limited scale. At the same time, elite complacency has done nothing to address the insecurities of the native population. The absence of labor reform in many of the member states in the EU ensures that high rates of youth unemployment will persist. Instead of receiving reassurance that their national culture will not leave them behind, these people find themselves berated as racist. Against such a lack of official action, indeed almost an active refusal to address anyone's concerns, Europe's elite has managed to intensify feelings of alienation, abandonment and despair on both sides.    

It is little wonder, then, that both groups have taken to the streets and that violence has increased. The media has covered immigrants’ actions thoroughly, but the native population has been equally if not more aggressive. Bitter feelings clearly run deep. Long before this latest influx of migrants, surveys in the United Kingdom showed that some three-quarters of the respondents wanted officials to force unemployed immigrants to go home. Surveys on the Continent show similar attitudes. Anti-Muslim websites have proliferated. Feminist journals that typically lean toward the progressive side have expressed serious reservations about growing Muslim influences, and at times have recommended less than liberal means to address them. Attacks on immigrants have also risen. In one shocking incident, Italian neo-Nazis, wearing armbands, ran through the fashionable Pigneto district of Rome, attacking immigrant shopkeepers while shouting "get out foreign bastards." Last year, even before the Syrian influx, several mosques were torched in Sweden, of all places. As early as six years ago, Morten Kjærum, director of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, admitted that "crimes with racist motives and discrimination in the EU are more widespread than individual member states admit."