The Deadly Treatment of Refugees in Europe

An acclaimed author reflects on the fatal error of dehumanizing millions in need

Migrants pass through a registration camp on the Greek-Macedonian border in January. Credit: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times/Redux

My first cousin Ljilja is married to a man named Muhamed. They used to live in Bijeljina, a Bosnian border town overrun at the start of the 1992 war by the Serb troops gunning to cleanse the country of its Muslims. Fearing for his life, Muhamed paid a stranger to take him across the river to Serbia, where he could go into hiding. A few days later, Ljilja left her job as a teacher and boarded a bus to follow him with their baby son, Damir. At the border, she was afraid they might be turned back or thrown into the river. Luckily, her documents were checked by a former student who let them through. Soon thereafter, Serb paramilitaries beat Muhamed's father to death.

The family ended up in France. For sixteen months, they lived in a refugee facility: one small room, two families, crowded bunk beds. It took Damir a while to start talking, but then it was both in Bosnian and French. Once they got their staying papers, the local government provided them with a tiny apartment. It was perfectly empty — no furniture, no beds, no stove, no fridge, nothing. All they had were two duffel bags of baby clothes given to them by the Red Cross. Soon Muhamed's cousin sent some stuff, including a crib, she'd collected from her French friends. For a while, Ljilja and Muhamed slept on the floor. Muhamed sought a job desperately, his obviously Muslim name an impediment. They had to use a soup kitchen more than once.

Long story short: at the age of ten, Damir builds his first robot; at fifteen he writes code to control via the Internet another robot he constructed. Presently, at twenty-five, he's in a Ph.D. program at Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, the top artificial intelligence research institute in France, among the top five in the world. He feels 80 percent French, 20 percent Bosnian. When I meet him, I see the future that is beyond me, and cannot begin to imagine the things he's capable of doing.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, governing since the November 13 Paris attacks over an indefinite state of emergency, insists that refugees "destabilize our societies." Katie Hopkins, a UK tabloid "columnist" and a devout Trumpist, has written, "These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit 'Bob Geldof's Ethiopia circa 1984,' but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb." Masked thugs in Stockholm randomly beat refugee children; the encampment in the French town of Calais has been raided by anti-refugee goons; a German anti-Islam group, PEGIDA, has staged rallies all over the continent. Europe might not have a common refugee policy, but it's certainly developing a common ethics.

The current official approach to the problem is founded on a hope that an all-European obstacle course will stem the flow (one million in 2015). Anything encouraging refugees to see the relative benefits of dying elsewhere helps: faulty life vests and frequent drownings (early this week, 27 people died on their way to Lesbos, 11 of them children); the absence of logistical and humanitarian support, apart from NGOs and amateur volunteers; abuse by robbers and police; paying Lebanon (where refugees are 30 percent of the population) and Turkey to keep them in squalid camps, etc. As countries like Hungary and Poland barbwire their borders lest the refugees "destabilize our societies," the Schengen Agreement, crucial for the EU as an idea and practice in guaranteeing free movement within its borders, is about to be effectively suspended. Even Germany, which had been welcoming at least until the New Year's incident in Cologne, where hundreds of women were mugged and groped by men "of Arab or North African appearance," doesn't mind the refugee numbers being trimmed before they get there.

The whole obstacle-course strategy benefits from dehumanization. Syndicated images show refugee hordes pushing against fences, overwhelming train stations, pouring out of ferries, resembling zombies, their individuality irrelevant and invisible. In referring to "migrants," UK Prime Minister David Cameron has deployed terms like "swarm" and "bunch," a notch down at least from "cockroaches." The effect of stripping refugees' of their possessions (as Denmark has done) is to ensure even those who enter, do so as nothings. And what individualization of refugees there might be is often contingent upon their being dead: a beached, bloated child might be assigned a name and a life, but few others get to be fully human. Somewhere in Europe someone must be developing a video game with points scored for each nameless refugee terminated before reaching London or Copenhagen.

Whenever I see Damir, he patiently outlines his brilliant ideas featuring artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and microbiology, kindly explaining to his aged uncle the ethics of self-learning algorithms, the logistics of directed evolution. Some of his ideas are moneymakers, but he'd rather post them on some open-source site. A quarter of a century ago, escaping the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, he managed to make it in his mother's arms across all the hostile borders. And if Damir and people like him are not the future of France and the EU then they have no future at all. By shutting the door to the refugees, Europe is shutting the lid on its own satin-padded coffin.