'Things Could Get Very Ugly' Following Europe's Refugee Crisis

A new book traces the growing backlash against immigration in the West—and argues it's unwise to dismiss it.

Supporters of the anti-immigration right-wing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West carry various versions of the Imperial War Flag during a protest.
Supporters of the anti-immigration right-wing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West carry various versions of the Imperial War Flag during a demonstration march in Cologne, Germany, on January 9, 2016.  (Wolfgang Rattay)

In 2015, record numbers of people left their homes and fled to Europe due to the rise of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, and instability in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. More than two million people requested asylum within the European Union between 2015 and 2016.

It’s not yet clear how this influx of newcomers will change European politics in the long term. But it has already played a role in a wave of elections that saw far-right parties—in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy—make gains in parliaments and join governing coalitions with mainstream parties.

Whatever the causes of the backlash against immigrants—be they economic, xenophobic, or otherwise—the governments of Europe are not alone in facing the challenge. In the United States, the Trump administration has adopted a harsh anti-immigration and anti-refugee stance, one he’s been blocked from fully implementing—early proposals for a travel ban aimed at residents of several Muslim-majority nations were held up in the courts, and his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexican border is making little headway.

Nevertheless, anti-immigration sentiment has not developed without reasons of its own—and it is for those reasons that it has found a political constituency. In his new book, Go Back to Where You Came from: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, Sasha Polakow-Suransky chronicles the backlash against refugees and immigrants in Europe and the United States, and how it is reshaping politics. I spoke with Polakow-Suransky about the lessons that can be drawn from the refugee crisis and what the United States can learn from Europe. In particular, he made the case that the left is unwise to dismiss concerns about the speed and numbers of immigration. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Annabelle Timsit: What is the main message of your book, and why did you write it?

Sasha Polakow-Suransky: The fear that has become pervasive in many European countries and in the United States about Muslim immigrants, about refugees, about terrorism, is misplaced—which is not to say that there is not a threat from Muslim fundamentalists, or that there is not a problem with absolute and uncontrolled immigration. But there are a lot of politicians who have capitalized on that fear, and my argument is that we should be much more afraid of those politicians and those parties, and what they could do to unravel Western liberal democratic states.

On a personal level … it’s a story and a debate that resonates because … the rhetoric coming from nativist politicians today regarding Muslim immigrants and refugees is very similar to what we heard in the 1930s regarding Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, and in the ’30s in South Africa, when my grandparents fled there. More broadly, I think that [Muslim immigration] is a fundamental political question in Europe right now, and it is becoming a fundamental political question in the U.S., because of the way in which Trump and the people around him have weaponized the issue politically, in order to stoke the anger and resentment of their followers.

Timsit: What hope do you see for the European model of integration today that was not there in the 1930s?

Polakow-Suransky: On the far right there is this widespread pessimism that this cannot work, and that there is a fundamental civilizational clash that makes it impossible to integrate these people. I think that’s nonsense. It plays well with their voters, but it’s not an accurate description of what the problem is. … I think that it’s absolutely possible, but there have been real failures in many European countries. One of the problems is keeping people out of work. By making it difficult or impossible for newly arrived refugees to integrate into the labor market, they created all sorts of social problems, for those people and for their children, and that’s something that will have to change.

One fundamental question that will have to be addressed is: If these societies are taking in significant numbers of people, are they doing so at a pace that is manageable for schools, and the labor market, and the other institutions that are actually going to have to do the heavy lifting of integration?

In that sense, there are people on the right who have a point about the speed and the numbers [of immigration]; but I think we have to distinguish between the people who are saying that [unchecked immigration] will undermine the possibility of integrating them effectively, and the people who are saying these people don’t want to be part of our civilization and are not capable of integrating into it, and therefore we have to keep them out.

I think what’s happening in Europe right now is that a lot of people who are actually making the second argument are couching it as the first.

Timsit: You describe political parties in Europe breaking down over the issue of immigration; do you see the same thing happening here in the U.S.?

Polakow-Suransky: I’m from Michigan, and the phenomenon going on in the suburbs and other areas surrounding Detroit really does strike me as similar: Unionized factory workers, in a highly industrialized area of the country, who used to vote reliably Democratic and whose identities were often linked to their work and to the organized labor movement—they progressively lost jobs, union representation went down, areas that used to be pretty stable and prosperous have gone downhill. … So if you look at it that way, it isn’t that different from a place like Calais, or post-industrial areas of Northeastern France.

[While] there’s a lot of similarity in the resentments and grievances that are driving these voters to abandon their old political allegiances and back populist right-wing candidates, the way it has played out politically is different: The U.S. has a rigid, two-party structure, but in most European countries, coalitions determine who comes to power, so far-right parties can become kingmakers when they gain a large enough share of the vote, and they drive debate and influence policy even when they don’t win.

I think that’s part of the genius of what [France’s National Front party leader Marine] Le Pen and other [far-right] leaders did: They rebranded themselves as defenders of the welfare state, a classically left-wing position, while holding onto their xenophobic immigration policies. This combination of statist economic policy and nativism was attractive to certain working-class voters who felt abandoned by the center-left and resented the change immigration brought to their neighborhoods. Add to that a strong dose of overtly xenophobic campaign rhetoric that blamed foreigners for most of the country’s social and economic problems, at a time when refugees were arriving in large numbers, and you had a perfect storm and an optimal political moment for nativist politicians to win.

In the U.S., we essentially had a populist nativist candidate with dubious GOP credentials execute a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and redirect the party in a way that appealed to a certain xenophobic segment of the GOP, but also to new voters who were not previously Republican—which explains Trump’s success in places like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Timsit: In the U.K., frustration is directed not just at Muslim immigration, but also at immigrants from Eastern Europe. What does that tell you about what’s motivating the immigration backlash?

Polakow-Suransky: There’s absolutely raw racism, blatant Islamophobia, and fear of immigrants coming from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East driving the backlash in some respects—that exists, it’s undeniable, and it’s getting stronger. At the same time, the Polish and Eastern European issue shows that there is much more complexity there.

One of the problems with this debate is that people are too quick to vilify everyone and place them in the same category. There is some complexity to the views of xenophobes—people on the left say that all of these people are vile racists, but I think that is a political cop-out, because it doesn’t go anywhere to resolving the problem. If you’re a politician, you need to address that. My argument is that you don’t have to cave in morally to the nastiest policy preferences of some of these voters in order to address their issues.

Timsit: Today, parts of Europe are ruled by leaders who are more open to immigration, and the United States is ruled by an anti-immigration president. Looking a few years ahead, what does this mean for immigration policy?

Polakow-Suransky: I predicted that things would play out in the opposite way, geographically. When I started writing the book, I genuinely feared that [far-right politician Geert] Wilders’s party would get the most votes in Holland, that Le Pen had a real chance of winning in France, and I didn’t take Trump seriously enough until the very end.

But on this, I would say that it doesn’t really matter if a far-right party wins power, because their ideas have gone mainstream and influenced the terms of the debate. Centrist parties, both center-right and center-left, have caved to certain demands from the far-right in pretty much every European country. And in Eastern Europe, in places like Poland and Hungary, the trend towards outright illiberal democracy is even stronger.

What I worry about is that, if there’s another [refugee] crisis, if the kinds of numbers we saw in 2015 happen again, if there’s a massive refugee flow into Europe, then I think some very dangerous and scary policies are going to be on the table—[including] an attempt to outsource the problem, either by paying North African countries to warehouse people in camps so they don’t come to Europe, or by trying to stop the flow earlier on by giving military aid to African and Middle Eastern governments. When or if that happens, things could get really ugly.