The Cold Genocide of the Refugees

by Matt Broomfield

29 May 2016

We are ushering Turkey into the European community, in repayment for them housing those refugees who have made it across the Mediterranean into Greece without drowning. Turkey, a serial abuser of human rights and the rights of refugees, only does business with countries that deny the existence of the Armenian genocide. If the EU were to point out that Turkey’s predecessor state committed genocidal murder, the deal would flounder.

Turkey stands as a testament to the fact that the international community can freely ignore genocide if it is economically convenient to do so. In order to mitigate the possibility of this type of collective myopia, Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, has identified ten ‘stages’ of genocide, overlapping features common to all genocides.

The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has closely followed the opening stages of Stanton’s processual typology. While not yet a genocide, it is beginning to take on genocidal form.

Defining a genocide.

‘Genocide’ is a deeply contested term. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide figures genocide as a crime of intention. It states that mass murder must be committed with the deliberate desire to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” if it is to be considered a genocide.

As scholars have argued since these terms were adopted, the definition’s failure to incorporate politically-defined groups such as refugees is just that – a failure. Some even argue that political genocide was only excluded to appease the USSR, a signatory with an uncomfortable history of mass political purges. But however diverse they may be, refugees are treated as a single political whole. In construing refugees as a homogeneous whole, the European community makes them into a single entity, a group which can then be destroyed.

Moreover, intention is difficult to locate. What was the intention behind refusing to fund operation Mare Nostrum? To make the politically-determined group of ‘refugees-seeking-refuge-in-Europe’ cease to exist, by allowing some of their number to die. To remove the whole by destroying the part. That decision resulted in a tenfold increase of deaths within a social group, and it was taken with the intention of destroying that group. The violence is passive, not active – but it is no less real for that.

The ten stages of genocide.

The first of Stanton’s ten stages is classification, the ‘bipolar’ division of a society into ‘us and them’. In spite of their heterogeneous origin, race and circumstance, refugees are politically determined as a homogeneous ‘them’, classified the moment they tumble off a life raft onto land. Subsequent formal assessments of refugees’ asylum status can only ever refine their position within the monolithic category of ‘migrant’, so far as the public is concerned.

Stage two is symbolisation; red-painted doors in north-east England, red wristbands in Cardiff, and, most significantly, ID cards in Germany. “No other factor was more significant” in facilitating the Rwandan genocide than government-issued ID cards.  Third is discrimination, wherein the affected group “may not be accorded full civil rights or even citizenship.” That ‘even’ suggests the denial of citizenship should be considered a particularly shocking act of discrimination. For an estimated 760,000 stateless refugees in Europe, it is a fact of life.

Fourth: dehumanisation. There is a well-documented equivalence between Katie Hopkins’ assertion that ‘cockroach’ migrants should be stopped by ‘gunships’, and the language used by Hutu extremists during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Considered a ‘swarm’, in a ‘jungle’, they are construed more as a natural disaster than as a series of destitute individuals.

Here is where the European situation begins to depart from the classic model of genocide. Of the fifth stage, organisation, Stanton says: “Genocide is always organised, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of responsibility.” A militia like the Janjaweed, for example, provides deniability to the Sudanese government in Khartoum as they commit genocide in Darfur.

But as Kjell Anderson has written, not all genocides are ‘hot genocides’, involving the swift, violent elimination of a perceived threat. There are ‘cold genocides’ too, “rooted in victims’ supposed inferiority.” Anderson uses this dichotomy to draw attention to the slow genocides of indigenous peoples by colonising nations, but the distinction is deeply relevant to contemporary Europe.

The genocide of the refugees could run hot or cold. They are considered at once terrifyingly dangerous and contemptibly weak. They are simultaneously lazy, grasping scroungers and violent, organised terrorists.

Denial (stage ten) is fundamental to Stanton’s analysis, and to understanding the ‘organisation’ of the refugee crisis. Stanton describes denial as a super-stage, which “lasts throughout and always follows a genocide.” The genocide of the refugees, if it comes, as it comes, will be abstracted into a more easily-denied form than any preceding it.

Some of our militias are maniacs in SS helmets wielding scimitars, right-wing thugs stalking the French countryside disguised as gendarmerie, and Pegida arsonists dancing in front of burning refugee shelters. Some are bogus people-smugglers packing children into the holds of leaking ships, and the manufacturers of fake life-jackets. But they are also the refugees themselves, racing to a watery death in the unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean. By allowing refugees to batter themselves to death against the walls of Fortress Europe, the European community achieves absolute deniability.

Though they are yet to materialise in explicit form, signs of the latter stages of genocide are flickering across the European stage. Two emergent trends in European policy-making deserve scrutiny in light of Stanton’s analysis.

During stage six – polarisation – “extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the centre.” Again, Europe is learning to outsource responsibility for this terrorism. The Islamophobic right uses imagined future violence to legitimise its cause and silence liberal moderates.

The scenario Stanton describes is being replaced by one in which moderates are silenced by terrorism – a phenomenon which only really threatens Muslims in far-off countries. Despite some recent high-profile attacks, terrorist threats are still largely a phantasm on European soil, where the numbers show we are still far safer from terror attacks than we were in the 1970s or 1980s. Yet the fascist hard-right continues to accrete power across Europe. The mainstream is becoming polarised, and fascism popularised, in trends the Migration Policy Institute noted in 2015.

And as stage seven – preparation – begins, “perpetrator group leaders use euphemisms to cloak their intentions, such as referring to their goals as ‘counter-terrorism’.” There could hardly be a more succinct description of the current discourse around alleged Isis interlopers among the mass of refugees. Nato’s top commander has said that Isis is “spreading like cancer” among the refugees. Of course, Nato is not planning a pogrom – but it is pushing for a more fortified, hostile Europe, and that means refugees will die. It is chilling to hear one of the world’s top military men taking his cue from the chants (“today refugees, tomorrow terrorists”) of fascists.

Cold genocide.

Talk of open genocide should not be written off as hyperbolic distraction.  Consider this future: in 2020, refugee camps sprawl across eastern Europe. A moderate-right or hard-right coalition governments keep a brittle peace between refugees and roaming gangs of fascists. One day, fascists mobilise and torch a refugee camp. The government does nothing. The next day, ten more camps are burning. By the next week, they all are.

Or consider the possibility of a 9/11-scale, Isis-claimed attack in the heart of Europe. By the next day, Muslims across the continent are being driven from their homes. Neither of these scenarios seems so very absurd. Mathijs van de Sande has eloquently described the leaching of extreme-right ideology into mainstream political discourse, arguing “it is no longer exaggerated… to claim that Europe is on the verge of a low-intensity civil war against refugees and other minority communities.”

But though the current situation could lead to direct, explicit mass murder of refugees in Europe, this possibility remains reasonably remote. Though plausible, these scenarios of hot genocide are less likely than a steady continuation of what is already happening in Europe: the gradual eradication of a politically-defined, racially cohesive group, through absolute, murderous indifference.

There may come a point when the treatment of refugees becomes genocide under international law. But more importantly, it is already genocidal in intention. The European community does not care whether the refugees die or live, but it wants all of them to leave Europe and never return. It wants to destroy them, in part or in whole.

Who sewed Sasan’s mouth shut?

In 2016, hunger strikers in the Calais ‘Jungle’ sewed their lips together to protest the barbarity of their treatment by Europe.  Sasan, a 17 year old protester, told me via a translator: “We have sewn our mouths shut to protest against the violent destruction of the Jungle, and in spite of the fascists who attack us here. We are retaliating with a peaceful protest.

“With our one mouth we have spoken 100 times, and have not been heard. Will the British government listen to us with our mouths sewn shut?”

Who sewed Sasan’s mouth shut? Regardless of whether the needle driven through flesh is directly guided by the oppressor or forced through in desperation by the oppressed, the suffering remains the same. For Sasan, there is little to separate the ‘fascist’ thugs beating refugees in France from our own government in Britain. Both guide the needle through his skin.

To say that Sasan sutured his own lips together is offensively reductive, as it is to say that refugees casting themselves into the Aegean Sea are committing suicide of their own volition. Genocide by omission is just as much a genocide as genocide by commission.

Refugees, moulded into a cohesive political group by the collective will of the European community, are dying because of that same will. By outsourcing the responsibility for genocide to the victims of the violence, the European community is simply moving from a model of state-sanctioned mass murder to one of state-enforced mass suicide.

Photo: Ann Wuyts/Flickr

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