Just as a tsunami of right-wing anti-immigrant ‘populism’ was threatening to breach Europe’s defences and wash away the liberal consensus, the Low Country dykes and levies stood firm; Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party failed to have the impact anticipated and made only minimal gains, with the centrist Mark Rutte consolidating his position. And we could all breathe a sigh of relief that the brand of sanity that we have been accustomed to for so many years is pushing back. This is the narrative for now. Wilders certainly is a provocative man; hard to take too seriously with his shock of blonde hair, and xenophobic rhetoric plus his questionable economic policies (eg. Holland exiting the EU). But even if he did not succeed in his election goals, he succeeded in setting the debate. Across Europe it does seem that people are waking up to the fact that they are uneasy about immigration.
Wilder’s kicked off his election campaign by branding Moroccans ‘scum’, though he did offer the caveat: ‘not all of them’. This soundbyte (the first part) was picked up by the media as a very useful, headline-friendly case for the prosecution of Wilder’s bigotry and xenophobia. The ‘liberal consensus media’, whilst reporting on Wilders and the Dutch election, wanted it left entirely clear what sort of a man and politicians he is. And to be fair he most probably is a xenophobe and a bigot. But he was discussing a topic that the above-mentioned media will only frame as pure xenophobia and little else, yet many, many people around Europe have had personal experiences with and would identify it.
I first heard the phrase ‘Moroccan scum’ as a young, middle-class Englishman recently moved to Barcelona in 2007. Having been correctly raised to abhor any overt displays of homophobia, sexism or racism, I did find this phrase rather racist. My first personal encounter with said ‘Moroccan scum’ came in the form of a choke hold in the early hours of one spring morning and an absent wallet. When asked by acquaintances if the perpetrators were Moroccan, I thought that a strangely specific question. And obviously a little bit racist. On another occasion, when walking through the narrow, crowded streets of a night, I found myself in a huddle of men, with one kid vigorously shaking my hand and not releasing as I pulled it away. Second wallet gone. After that I stopped having wallets while I lived in Barcelona.
Once you get robbed once (okay, twice), your eyes open. Whereas before you might have just seen people in the streets, now your eyes see so much more. And they discriminate. After dark, the narrow streets of El Gotico in Barcelona were plagued with young North African men and boys who roamed the alleyways looking for people to rob. The Pakistanis would sell beer and flowers and were not generally a bother. The black Africans would sell knock-off goods and drugs but they too were generally okay (if a bit touchy). However, the Moroccans would rob you and were dangerous. The word was that all the petty, illegal activity in Barcelona was organised hierarchically and along ethnic lines. Working in a bar and inhabiting the Barcelona night, it was an underworld I had to navigate. My experiences with Moroccan street crime in Barcelona culminated in a fight with two boys attempting to rob me, a knife, blood and eight stitches over my heart. It is fortunate that bone in the breast plate is very hard.
In the police station after this incident, they had an entire wall of shelves holding folders dedicated to mugshots of known street criminals of ‘Arabic description’. I spent an hour flicking through photo after photo of grinning, smirking, scowling, malevolent faces. In the end I stopped because each leering, unrepentant grin made me angrier than the last.
I got very accustomed to the phrase ‘Moroccan scum’ whilst living in Barcelona. On the surface it’s a purely racist term; all Moroccans are scum. But it was shorthand; it referred to those specific people in Barcelona who were from Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia, and who roamed the streets at night in gangs looking for people to rob (there were also petty criminals from other countries and ethnic origins – including Spain – and they were scum too). Boys of pure malice and disrespect and contempt for everything. But not all Moroccans on earth, or Europe (many North Africans are employed in Spanish farms for seasonal work, for example). Just those specific people. ‘Scum’ seemed a fitting sobriquet. A better phrase that refers specifically to these people and does not seem to encompass an entire people based on race or nationality would surely be better, but this was the meaning and the usage in Barcelona. Quite possibly it encouraged racist thought patterns in those less assiduous in policing their own ways of thinking. It is certainly not an epithet befitting a prospective statesman. But its usage by common laypeople was not necessarily purely racist but more convenient shorthand for a problem that everyone who frequented the centre of Barcelona after dark recognised.
Around about 2011 a curious thing happened. The streets got safer. Those same gangs diminished from the night. The known corners that must be avoided after midnight were vacated. Even El Raval became largely navigable. Those same prowling faces and darting eyes vanished from the streets. A couple of theories about what had happened floated about. In 2011 a new conservative government came to power in Madrid, and they simply had the police round up all known offenders without due process or legal trial and throw them in a detention centre near El Prat Llobregat. Just disappeared them. If this is so it may have been a grave breach of habeas corpus, but it improved the lives of thousands and thousand of people. The other theory is that the gangs just moved on. They lead a nomadic, gypsy lifestyle robbing and thieving, and once they push things too far in one European country, they simply move on to another where they have a clean slate. And now you will find them in Holland and Sweden and Germany and Italy, sweeping up fresh ‘migrant’ arrivals from North Africa into their criminal ways. Committing grotesque sexual assaults on women during New Year’s Eve in Cologne.
A couple of things to take from this account. This North African migrant criminal underclass is a very separate issue from refugees from the Middle East and the two are not to be conflated. The ‘refugee crisis’ is a high stakes political issue that weighs heavily on the political fortunes of Angela Merkel, Germany, and the European Union, and is therefore ripe for manipulation by various political actors. ‘Illegal’ migration from North Africa does not fall into this category, though it serves the political purposes of some to conflate the two issues.
Statistically, Middle East refugees do not commit a disproportionate amount of crime (although there may be some overlap with North African migrants due to cultural and linguistic similarities). On the other hand, a separate form of migration comes to Europe from North Africa due to poor living conditions in their home countries (unemployment, corruption, lack of education, etc.). That they cause a statistically disproportionate amount of crime does appear to be a fact. And that they are not eligible asylum seekers, coming from a part of the world that is not ridden with war and able to take care of its citizenry, also appears to be a fact. Those that apply for asylum will generally be rejected, yet choose to remain in Europe, illegally and resorting to petty crime. There are 800,000 homeless children in Morocco, and large numbers of them decide it would be better to be homeless in Europe. Many of them – the worst – exist in a culture of open contempt for Europe, its people, its culture and way of life, and feel no remorse for their criminal ways or taking advantage of its liberal laws to avoid serious penalisation or deportation.
The media tells us that Geert Wilders is a horrible racist and his politics are a threat to Europeans security and stability. And that’s quite possibly true. But in promulgating this narrative there is a certain head-in-the-sand aspect that ultimately refuses to face up to the issues that he raises and in the long run gives sustenance to his sympathisers. There is a reluctance among the ‘liberal consensus media’ to face these issues, most probably for fear of opening Pandora’s Box. There’s an incentive among those with certain political agendas to conflate largely separate issues. But a mature, courageous and objective approach to such issues is surely necessary to find a similarly accordant solution. Burying the issues that are driving this wave of ‘right-wing anti-immigrant populism’ under dismissals of racism and xenophobia only serve to inflate them, rather than truly putting them under the microscope. The ‘liberal consensus media’ denies the problem and the ‘hysterical reactionary media’ exacerbates it. Where are the sane heads to discuss these issues frankly and bravely on the assumption of unbiased objectivity?