Forms and outcomes of citizens’ mobilisations during Europe’s refugee reception crisis

Mass mobilization of citizens and organizations around Brussels-North railway station. FRANÇOIS DVORAK/fdvphotoreporter.wixsite.com/monsite, CC BY-NC

The long summer of migration in 2015 had a profound impact on civil society throughout Europe. Whether countries were arrival points, on transit routes or were final destinations, and regardless of their geopolitical situations, a large and diversified set of attitudes and practices emerged.

The actions taken by citizens, whether they were negative or positive, intended to reject or welcome newcomers, made visible their dissatisfaction and criticism toward the way their political elites and institutions attempted to manage the situation. Over time they became systematic and structured, ultimately questioning the relationship between citizens and political institutions. They also give a sense of what political participation means today.

As shown in our research, while public opinions remained relatively stable throughout from 2015 to 2018, civil-society mobilisation rose and became polarised in all European countries. The profiles of those involved differed, as did their relationships with institutions and the outcomes. The range of motivations themselves showed to be relatively stable, and determined by sociocultural and political motivations.

  • Positive mobilisations: Humanitarian solidarity is the strongest catalyst and has an important impact on support activities. Donations and emergency help such as the distribution of food and clothes are the most common practices among individual volunteers and civil society groups. This is also true in those contexts where public opinion is more critical of migration, where institutions take a more restrictive approach, or where civil society is generally less proactive.

  • Negative mobilisations: These are inspired by tropes about the demographic threat from the Global South, including conspiracy theories on “ethnic substitution”, opposition to “foreignisation”, the conception of the national territory as “private property”, and the depiction of nations as victims of an “invasion”. During the reception crisis, perceived cultural threats revolving around national identity, cultural norms and values have significantly increased, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe.

Negative sociocultural beliefs are also embodied by political parties or movements. In Italy, far-right organisations as well as the anti-immigration mainstream party, the League and its leader Matteo Salvini, played this role. In Hungary, xenophobia is completely integrated into the rhetoric of the Orbán government.

From the social to the political

In a second phase of the reception crisis, groups motivated by solidarity shifted to politically driven mobilisation, showing that sociocultural and the political forms of mobilisation are not exclusive or conflictual, but overlapping.

Only in rare instances did citizens’ reactions align with the governments’ stance. Instead, initiatives often aimed to correct – or more precisely, to suggest corrections to – state policies. When politically driven, positive mobilisation embraced the issue of formal access to rights, including questions of citizenship and recognition of undocumented people. It aimed to have a direct impact on national politics, the policymaking process and field practices, as well as in those contexts where institutions show relative tolerance toward asylum seekers. Similarly, mobilisation against asylum seekers sought to integrate the government’s restrictive field practices such as border and access control. This happened especially when the reception systems in transit countries were overwhelmed and clearly no longer effective.

Interestingly, while positive mobilisation rarely sprang directly from political organisations or got backing from formal political parties, the most evident cases of negative mobilisation were structured around political groups that existed before 2015 – Pegida in Germany, the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn or Jobbik’s paramilitary wing, Hungarian Guard. Italy is a case where the connection between negative mobilisation and formal politics is particularly evident: opposition to asylum seekers came directly from local governments, and saw the spontaneous mobilisation of citizens only in rare cases.

The reception crisis also allowed far-right groups to portray asylum seekers as a national threat, and to gain space in the public debate. Golden Dawn had a strong impact, shaping the widespread impression that Greece was a xenophobic country. In Italy, the reception crisis was an opportunity for different segments of the right-wing and far-right spectrum to work together. Even in Germany, where the concept of Willkommenskultur shaped the mainstream debate and inspired the humanitarian response at the international level, a strong representation of anti-migration views and extreme violence against immigrants emerged in 2015.

On December 17, 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders sought to establish a new border and coast guard force to slow the influx of migrants across the EU’s external frontiers. Alain Jocard/AFP

Mobilisation outcomes

The long summer of migration in 2015 had an impact on the relationship between civil society and the state. This happened in the way the former represents claims and takes actions within the public affairs, and how the latter interacts with – and reacts to – citizens’ sentiments and engagement.

There was an unprecedented wave of solidarity from Europeans who hadn’t previously been active supporters of asylum seekers or migration-related issues. Mobilisation was primarily in urban settings, with the exception of areas such as the Serbian/Croatian border in Hungary and the Greek islands that experienced mass arrivals. The crisis of reception structures led to the creation, consolidation, interaction and evolution of heterogeneous organisations, citizen initiatives and networks at the national and international level.

Mobilisation also occurred when dormant organisations reactivated and existing ones embraced the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. The nature of their activities and their principles adapted to the situation, the needs of newcomers and the policy structures surrounding them. European civil society reacted more or less explicitly to the problems, gaps and failures of political institutions and institutional policy measures. In doing so, citizen organisations and NGOs made visible the “organized non-responsibility” that characterised the institutional approach of the European Union and the indifference of many countries during the emergency.

The emergence of the local dimension

As a consequence of the reception crisis, volunteer groups, citizen initiatives and civil-society organisations paved the way for inclusive approaches toward asylum seekers and migration in general. These approaches are specific to regions, municipalities and local areas. A new paradigm of integration established in these contexts, and marked a “local turn” in the management of the contemporary migration issue. Recent scientific articles published by Younes Ahouga or Zapata-Barrero, Caponio and Scholten have observed this paradigm to be growing in Europe.

The crisis created opportunities for citizens to transform spontaneous mobilisation – negative and positive – into forms of political action and advocacy. In several instances at the local level, groups of citizens and volunteers working alongside the state-designated reception actors took on a formal organisational structure and became involved in the decision-making process.

While strong civil-society mobilisation provided an alternative to anti-migrant rhetoric and violence, it did not always have positive political repercussions. This is reflected in the strategies of anti-migrant governments to challenge the leadership of non-institutional actors, as well as in the attempts to criminalise NGOs and obstruct their support activities. Examples of such institutional strategies are Hungary’s so-called “Stop Soros” laws, or Italy’s second “Security Decree”.

A few years before than international migration was turned into a political problem and the EU sought to fortify its external borders, sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad reminded us that contemporary migration has a mirror function. It makes visible how governmental trends in the treatment of immigrants anticipate the way forms of social control and legal measures are designed to be directed toward native citizens. The 2015-2018 refugee reception crisis is no exception.