Let's open Europe to immigration

Why Pope Francis's visit to Lampedusa highlights a challenge for all of us.

The symbolic power of the trip of Pope Francis to Lampedusa has drawn the world's attention to the persecution and deaths of migrants who attempt to join the European continent. The Pope's visit also highlights a striking paradox: although Europe needs more immigration, public discourse about it is tinted with mistrust and fear.

Indeed, taking into account the demographic evolution in Europe since the end of WWII, and more specifically the steady birth rate decline and the increase in life expectancy, it appears that our continent needs the contribution of immigration to escape the perpetual weakening of social security, the raising of retirement age, and the shrinking of pensions.

Yet in recent decades, immigration policies implemented all around Europe by every party and every political leader regardless of their political backgrounds, have been characterised by distrust. Hence, these policies are extremely restrictive.

The establishment of the European agency Frontex, whose main mission consists in intercepting migrants at the European borders, encapsulates current immigration policies in Europe. Distinguished by its violent interventions, Frontex became the symbol of "Fortress Europe", a closed and self-sufficient continent, a territory remaining unmoved by those who risk their life during long months, who do not hesitate to follow dangerous routes and who hope that a better life awaits them. Last year, more than 500 people coming from Africa died, to our worrying indifference, while attempting to reach Lampedusa. At the very moment of this tragedy, millions of other refugees were shut up in prison-like detention centres.

The "Dublin II" agreements are another illustration of European immigration policies. These agreements enable Member States to send back illegal migrants to the country that they first cross when they arrived on the European territory. Given the fact that Greece is, along with the south of Italy, the main entry point for migrants in Europe, many refugees land in Greece. Such a situation is unmanageable for local authorities and is exploited by Greek neo-Nazis to guarantee electoral and social support for their political party Golden Dawn, and enable them to freely persecute and kill migrants.

Distrust of migrants is now the dominant political position in Europe. It is not a coincidence. This stance embodies the ideological victory of extreme right-wing partisans and is the result of their fierce struggle to impose their viewpoint. As they knew that open antisemitism and racism would not lead them to an electoral victory, many extreme right-wing parties opted for the strategy of stigmatising immigrants and gradually imposed their opinions.

The implications of this ideological success from the far right are extremely painful: on the one hand less social rights for the entire society, and on the other hand more violence and more racist murders just like in Greece.

Similarly, the way in which extreme right-wing street movements and far right political parties complement one another is obvious. When some, sometimes very close to power, claim to be "normalised", they actually ensure the ideological victory of their political family and intend to raise tensions that enable violent acts.

However, we have to understand that more immigration is necessary in Europe not only because we need to ensure high level of social rights, but also because it is a necessity for democracy and human rights in the world.

First, welcoming more immigrants would increase the number of persons who stand to benefit from the rights as guaranteed in Europe. On condition that such a policy would not deprive poor countries of their elites, more people could enjoy democratic values.

Second, the future of Europe and the future of democracy are tightly linked. Stimulating immigration toward Europe could expand the European market, galvanise innovation, create an economy more open to the world and more dynamic and thus enable our old continent to compete with the new economic leaders whose political systems are often too authoritarian. As a consequence, we can imagine that emerging countries would be more attracted to democracy, and thus that democratic values and practices could spread worldwide, as it would be still recognized as an effective model of development.

If Europe wants to meet the challenge of immigration, that is to say face its future, it must win a cultural victory: to overcome distrust.

Such a shift implies the end of indifference to the "penning" of immigrants, the imprisonment of people - who, by the way, often come from former European colonies in Africa and Asia - in detention centers where living conditions are inappropriate for human beings. It also means fighting for equality, to set out a continent free from racism and antisemitism. It means placing democratic values at the heart of the common Europe project; and it also means rejecting austerity dogma as the current leading political principle of European institutions and governments.

The future of our continent and the future of democracy in the world are at stake.

Benjamin Abtan is President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM

Pope Francis visits migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa. (Photo: Getty.)

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.