Europe has of late experienced a rising number of refugees fleeing wars and dictatorships. The responses have mainly been of a populist nature: there is a „refugee crisis“, and the European countries either have refused to accept refugees at all (against European and international laws governing the acceptance of refugees) or have taken special measures to reduce the number of refugees.
These were the themes of a debate at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 in the Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation, which was well attended on a Saturday morning.
It was under the title Fortress Europe vs Bastion of freedom and human rights that ICORN writers Mohammad Habeeb (Stavanger) and Anzhelina Polonskaya (Frankfurt) discussed the „refugee crisis“ with Peter Gustavsson (ICORN city Uppsala) and Peter Ripken (Frankfurt, former ICORN Board Chair).
The poet and translator Mohammad Habeeb, who was a human rights activist in Syria and spent 9 years in Assad’s prison, had to leave an intolerable situation in his home town Lattakia. In the debate, he was adamant that he and his family came to Norway in August 2015 because they wanted to live in peace with the people, not being harmed by „decision makers“ (politicians): Europe for him is still representing all the values that many generations of people in Europe had strived for.
Sweden has - like Norway - a long and good tradition of accepting and integrating refugees. But as Peter Gustavsson, City Councillor and Chair of the Cultural Committee in the Municipality of Uppsala told the audience, of late the Swedish Government seems to have moved away from that policy, like several other European countries. It has struck the „panic button“, becoming more and more strict in the field of admitting refugees. But he Gustavsson was optimistic that there was no reason to worry as the policy debate in Sweden would eventually become more rational again and take into account the basic principles of international agreements on human rights and refugees. In any case, he said, there is no threat that the Swedish programme of cities of refuge would be in danger.
Russia, on the other, hand may be geographically part of Europe, but it does not follow a policy of human rights and international agreements when it comes to the acceptance of refugees. Furthermore, as the Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya, at present living in Frankfurt City of Refuge pointed out, Russia at present is involved in two wars beyond its borders, in Ukraine and in Syria. Also, the rule of law in Russia seems to be quite peculiar, and in the last decade a number of journalists and opposition politicians have been murdered with hardly any legal action taken against the perpetrators. Since the majoriry of Russians do believe Vladimir Putin to be a good leader, there is no development likely that many Russians would want to leave their home country and come to Western Europe. Nevertheless, Polonskaya points out, there is a great Russian tradition of dreaming of Europe. Many intellectuals and artists want to live in European countries to work in international settings (Berlin especially is coveted). But they would not see themselves as refugees, but more like artists using every opportunity to work outside their home country.
Finally, there were two agreements among the participants: despite the ongoing and increasing debate in most European countries about how to deal with the high number of refugees coming to Europe, there is no debate about the importance of the ICORN programme for Cities of Refuge as ICORN has been organizing it with increasing success for the last 10 years.
In view of the increasing numbers of „climate refugees“ fleeing countries (like Bangladesh) and islands in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean because of the rising sealevel , all participants agreed that the European Union and Europe in general do not seem to have any convincing strategy to cope with this problem.