European leaders are torn between the human rights of refugees and the fear of local people of being swamped by refugees

The racist attacks on refugees in Limassol and Paphos last week reminded me of the time in the 1970s when the National Front in England used to march in immigrant areas threatening the repatriation of the UK’s immigrant population.

I attended the march in Haringey in North London as a counter protestor and I remember it as an aggressive march and a farcical event. Haringey is inhabited mostly by Cypriots, Turks, Kurds and West Indians. The National Front marchers were a couple of hundred tattooed heavies holding St George flags aloft shouting anti-immigrant slogans.

The counter demonstration was led by the old student revolutionary Tariq Ali megaphone in hand shouting “the National Front is a Nazi front, smash the National Front” in his posh English accent. The counter demonstrators were armed only with flour and eggs with which to smash the racists but were prevented from doing so by a cordon of police on horseback.

The National Front was an extreme right-wing party rather like Elam in Cyprus and Golden Dawn in Greece and other right-wing parties in Europe whose existence is based on hatred of refugees and ugly nationalism. Parties like the National Front appeal to the lumpen proletariat; mostly the unsophisticated and simple-minded who go on pointless marches and shout xenophobic slogans and attack defenceless refugees in the name of national supremacy.

After the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy were roundly defeated in World War II, racist right-wing groups struggled to make their mark politically in Europe. They were relegated to the fringes of political life until they re-emerged recently the back of the arrival of refugees from Syria and Islamophobia.

In the UK the National Front’s ideology merged into that of the right wing of the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher who remoulded it into an ideology that holds that cultural homogeneity is the natural order of things. As Thatcher said before she became prime minister in 1979 “the fear is that the UK might be rather swamped by people of a different culture” – a sentiment with which many people these days agree without being branded racist.

Far from being swamped by the descendants of immigrants to its ranks, the Conservative Party has absorbed a large number of aspirant immigrants like prime minister Rishi Sunak and his interior minister Suella Braverman who are of Indian heritage but who espouse English identity and are more than willing to preserve it.

They do things differently on continental Europe. France too had a National Front as anti-immigrant as its UK counterpart except that it managed to make its racist ideology more respectable. Its leader was Jean- Marie Le Pen who stood for president unsuccessfully. He was ousted by his daughter Marine Le Pen in 2015 as she thought that the party under him was not electable.

She rebranded the party as the National Rally and made it slightly less extreme and although she was unable to win the presidency, losing twice to Emmanuel Macron in 2017 and 2022, her party has been the main opposition party in presidential elections in France eclipsing the once powerful Socialist Party of Mitterrand and Hollande.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni, whose political party Brothers of Italy is associated with the Fascist Party, succeeded where Marine Le Pen failed in France. She is now prime minister and adapted her role as an extreme right-wing leader by the simple expedient of being pro Nato and pro Ukraine. She is however anti-immigrant and anti-refugee although she too does not really have the answer to the problem and demonises refugees for political advantage instead.

Similar to the situation in Italy is the right-wing coalition that took power in Sweden in 2022, which includes the racist nationalists of the Sweden Democrats who came second and who promised legislative cooperation to keep refugees and immigrant out.

Victor Orban of Hungary is probably the most unapologetically racist leader in Europe. He wants to keep immigrants and refugees out of Hungary on purely racial grounds and proud of it.  He is tolerated by the EU, probably because he says the kinds of things that many EU leaders think but do not dare say in polite company in Brussels.

Extreme right-wing parties are undoubtedly more acceptable these days, mostly owing to the surge of refugee arrivals in Europe who are resented as refugees have always been resented. It is not widely known but the pogroms in Russia, Ukraine and Poland in the 19th and early 20th century resulted in an exodus of Jewish refugees westwards that caused the same resentment not only in Germany but in Britain and America too. In the end it was a contributory factor in the rise of the Nazi party in Germany but the haste with which states put up barriers at the time was motivated by the same local resentment and violence that we see in our streets today, which to me suggests a flaw in human nature.

Having gone through the Nazi experience European leaders are torn between the human rights of refugees and the fear of local people of being swamped by refugees – an unfortunate turn of phrase with negative connotations but appropriate to describe the dilemma facing European leaders.

They are at a loss on how to stem the inexorable flow of refugees humanely.

The first and most fundamental principle is not to demonise refugees and ensure they have a safe refuge. The second is to make it clear to refugees that what is available is just temporary refuge because most problems that cause mass refugee exoduses are temporary.

The 1951 Refugee Convention does make provision for this, but a new protocol is required to emphasise the temporary nature of refuge expressly.

I remember a few years back advising in a case in which a member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) claimed asylum in UK after the PPP was ousted from power in Pakistan. The immigration authorities sat on his claim until the PPP were back in power and then told the claimant that it was now safe for him to return.

What the authorities should have done was to grant his application temporarily and then revoke it when it became safe for him to return to Pakistan.

 

Alper Ali Riza is king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge