By Maria Stoyadinova
In his much-anticipated Cairo speech, President Obama rebuked the "negative stereotypes of Islam" and faced the Muslim world with a call for "mutual respect." Yet at the same moment, European sentiment seemed to be moving in the opposite direction.
A growing preference for stronger anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and nationalist domestic policies was evident last weekend, when voters from the 27 EU member countries headed to the polls. In a majority of states, far right-wing candidates garnered solid support and in some places parties with outright xenophobic agendas seemed to be quite popular. Dutch voters gave the nod to Geert Wilders, the leader of the openly and passionately anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Freedom Party. Italy has been divided by the immigration debate in the past few weeks, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi trying to attract voters by publicly expressing his concerns that the immigrants in Italy make him feel like he is in Africa and not in Europe.
Favored candidates in other countries kept up with the xenophobia as well. Amidst protests in the UK, the British National Party (BNP) secured a place in the European Parliament, even though the party does not allow non-white members into its ranks and is famous for its racist platform. Austria's Freedom Party, which is also popular for its fierce opposition to Islam, has gained significant traction. Before the Czech Republic's elections, some candidates compared members of the Roma minority to 'parasites'. And in Bulgaria, nearly 12% of the votes went to the far-right Ataka party, which has become popular for its fascist far-right rhetoric.
Ironically, although many analysts believe the economic crisis is fueling this renewed xenophobia, this new wave of anti-immigration sentiment is likely to push the European economies even further into recession. Immigration could provide a much-needed boost to the aging European workforce. It could increase economic productivity and alleviate unemployment pressures that have plagued European economies even prior to the global financial crisis. Concerns that immigrants strain the social security system without benefiting the economy are easy rallying cries, but they are economically unfounded and socially damaging.
What is most concerning, however, is that the rise in racist attitudes is likely to aggravate existing problems with protecting the human rights of the EU's immigrants and asylum seekers. In its latest annual report on Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International noted that discrimination and repression against migrants and people seeking asylum are common across the old continent. Detention of immigrants is widespread; even where it is not, non-citizens face legal discrimination, inadequate health care and exploitation. Authorities in the Netherlands often go as far as incarcerating torture and human trafficking victims.
Such abuses are unforgivable in countries that have the economic and legal capacity to provide asylum and help to populations in need, at a time when more and more people across the globe face dire poverty, violence and severe abuse.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.