Europe is still struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees, with over a million asylum seekers arriving across the Mediterranean Sea. Nearly all of them are Muslims. This fact has shaped public and political opinion but has rarely been openly and honestly discussed. Can a Europe of 28 member states share responsibility for a smaller number of refugees than is currently in Lebanon alone? Of course it can. In fact, most European countries need the labor.
The elephant in the room is an underlying Islamophobia. The simple fact is that European member states don’t really want to welcome Muslim migrants. This has been explicit in the case of countries with vocal far-right parties and in central European countries with Christian nationalist governments. But the liberal political elites of western Europe have steered clear of admitting that the biggest single barrier to coherent asylum and immigration policies is public anxiety about Islam. Far-right parties have pandered to these fears, stoking xenophobia. For the most part, though, people across the rest of the political spectrum have remained silent on the topic.
After all, the problem can’t be that Europe believes it is unable to deal with the flow of migrants. It has historically been able to cope well with large influxes of refugees. Throughout the Cold War, for example, millions of people moved from eastern Europe to western Europe, fleeing communism. Europe then resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. It even took large numbers of migrants from Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, including many Muslims—but this was before Islam became politically toxic. There has been far greater political skepticism toward those fleeing related conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.
More recently, the terrorist attack in Paris and reports of sexual assault and robbery in Cologne have been game changers for asylum in Europe. In Cologne, on New Year’s Eve, more than 100 women and girls reported that gangs of men had
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