Geert Wilders tries to break America

Luckily, his anti-Muslim tract gains little traction in the US.

The deepening of the Eurozone crisis – with Greece, Spain and Italy on the brink and threatening to bring the rest of the EU down with them – has stoked fears about the rise of the far-right and the future of European politics.

In Greece, the extreme right party Golden Dawn secured twenty-one parliamentary seats, making it the most far-right party to enter an European legislature since the Nazi era. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s anti-euro, anti-immigrant National Front Party achieved a record 17.9 per cent of the April vote in the first round of France’s presidential election. These wins illustrate how frustrated voters, disenchanted with mainstream political parties, are increasingly turning to fringe parties on both left and right.

No wonder that Dutch MP Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, has just released his new book, Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me, in New York. With 24 seats in the Dutch parliament in 2010, Wilders’ party was the third largest bloc, supporting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s minority coalition in return for a range of anti-Muslim concessions – a crackdown on immigration and a ban on the burqa. But last April, when Wilders pulled out of the coalition due to its support for austerity measures, Rutte’s government collapsed.

Wilders’ broad anti-Euro, anti-austerity agenda – calling for Netherlands’ budget policies to be decided domestically, not by the EU lawmakers in Brussels – has given him a platform to exploit the wave of opposition to austerity sweeping across Europe and beyond. A new poll shows that for the first time, his Freedom Party has outstripped the ruling Liberal Party in popularity, making them second only to the Socialists, who have doubled their seats to 30.

But Wilders’ Muslim thesis is so unhinged that it raises concerns about the resurgent legitimacy of far-right ideology under the stress of political and economic crisis. His Marked for Death essentially sets out a rationale for his call for an “International Freedom Alliance”, an umbrella organisation of groups and individuals “fighting for freedom against Islam”. The agenda is simple – the Qur’an should be banned, mosques forcibly shut down, Muslim women who wear a headscarf taxed, Muslim immigration halted, and potentially dangerous Muslims deported en masse.

Wilders’ hostility toward anything to do with Islam makes him incapable of recognising the growing impetus for reform across the Muslim world. For instance, Wilders takes aim at the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the intergovernmental body for 57 Muslim member states, as a clandestine vehicle for a global Islamic Caliphate conspiring to “elevate Shari’ah Laws over human rights.”

While the OIC is far from perfect, this overlooks how since 2005, under the leadership of Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the body has taken serious steps to promote internal Muslim reform – establishing the world’s first Muslim human rights commission to investigate abuses of “internationally-recognised civil, political, economic and social rights” in Muslim countries; issuing a comprehensive resolution condemning “all forms of terrorism”; while condemning Arab dictatorships trying to crush local democratic movements.

In his zeal to demonise Islam as a Nazi-like “totalitarian political ideology” and “existential threat”, Wilders turns a blind eye to such efforts for progressive Islamic reform. It is not a surprise, then, to find Wilders equally oblivious to the American Muslim experience. A study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security finds that American Muslim communities “have been active in preventing radicalisation”, and that the threat of home-grown terrorism, while already “minuscule”, has continued to decline. American Muslims regularly confront “individuals who express radical ideology or support for terrorism”, prevent “extremist ideologues from preaching in mosques”, and communicate “concerns about radical individuals to law enforcement officials”. No wonder even the RAND Corporation concludes that terrorists “would find little support in the Muslim community” in the US.

But then, published by notorious neoconservative outlet Regnery Publishing, Wilders’ Marked for Death offers little new in the profitable field of anti-Muslim scaremongering.  Indeed, it is no coincidence that his Freedom Party has for years received funding to the tune of six figures from many of the same US sources published by Regnery, such as Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and Pam Geller – whose stale stereotypes about Islam are amply regurgitated in his book ad nauseum.

The US publication of Marked for Death in English thus reveals the extent to which US ultraconservatives are getting desperate. With upcoming elections on the horizon, they have thrown the ‘Wilders card’ in a vain attempt to project his alleged European experiences on to an American audience to scare them into voting against Obama – which is precisely why Wilders is marketing his book in the US, and not Europe.

Fortunately, his book’s boring message is falling on deaf ears. Bar an interview with the equally unhinged Sean Hannity on Fox News, Marked for Death has received negligible acclaim in the American press. Discerning readers will note the most obvious reason: in the name of defending “freedom”, Wilders’ political programme is based entirely on the idea of forcibly eliminating the freedom of all Muslims across the West to practise and speak about their faith – whether or not they oppose extremism (which most do). Only someone utterly ignorant of American history would attempt such a thing in the Land of the Free.

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is an international security expert and Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which is now a documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011)

Geert Wilders in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Police guard migrants in Calais in June 2017. Photo: Getty
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Missing Efrem: the human story of our government's failure to care for child refugees

As campaigners challenge the government in court over the Dubs amendment, how one young man was let down by a system which was supposed to help him. 

On a muddy path on the edge of the Calais "Jungle" refugee camp, children, adolescents and young men jostled, acutely conscious the rest of their lives could be changed by this one moment. “Put up your hand if you’re under 18,” a harried-looking blonde woman in a yellow hi-vis vest was shouting. All the hands shot skywards. 

“Put your hands down again, you’re not all minors,” she sighed with exasperation.

It was October 2016, the week before the Jungle’s demolition, and its thousands of residents were confused and frantic. They had fled bombs, torture, hunger or crushing poverty; crossed oceans, borders and barbed-wire fences; survived detention by militias, beatings and teargassing - some while still children. 

For those who didn't speak French, this felt like a last desperate chance to get to the UK – to families or friends they had grown up with; a society they had heard such positive reports of. Minors were being separated into those who could be brought to the UK under Dublin Regulations - which allow for family reunification - and those who might qualify under the Dubs Amendment, proposed by former refugee Lord (Alf) Dubs to cater for the most vulnerable refugee children. The rest would be sent to reception centres across France.

Standing at the edge of the scrum, watching calmly, was 17-year-old Efrem. It was four months until he’d go missing, but his disappearance would be a direct consequence of what happened that day.

His story highlights the vulnerability of young refugees, the lack of any oversight and the black hole they can easily fall into.

By his shoulder was Denay, a 12-year-old who smiled shyly. “The priority is the children,” Efrem said, glancing down at his friend, even though legally he was a child too.

Over the next few months, after I returned to London, Efrem phoned me regularly. In the weeks after the Jungle’s closure, authorities moved him to a reception centre near Marseilles, where he mournfully explained there was no schooling and nothing to do. Young refugees were told they’d get interviews with British authorities who would evaluate their cases. Along with many of the 1,600 others, this was the only reason Efrem had agreed to go. 

The teenager would chat to me for long periods of time, asking me about my job and my family. He was bored and restless.

“Hey Efrem, sorry I missed your call! I’m in Iraq for work. Are you ok?” I texted him on December 10, 2016.

“Wawww good sally u lost. will u comeback soon,” he responded, before asking me to visit him in France.

Soon afterwards Efrem was told his application to come to the UK had been refused. Dozens of others were given the same news with no explanation, lawyers said. For young people with their lives on hold it was incomprehensible and devastating.

Early on Christmas Eve morning my phone rang again. It was Efrem, asking for the number for a smuggler. He had left the reception centre with a group of other teenagers and jumped a train back to Calais. There, he was sleeping rough during the day, making more bids for England by night.

The next time he called was New Year’s Eve. It was so cold, he said. He didn’t know how he could survive it.

I sent him the number of a local good Samaritan in Calais who had offered to provide food and shelter.

“Ok sally thanxxxx lol i appriciate u,” he replied.

The last time we spoke was late February. He was still sleeping outdoors, still hoping to get to England, but suspected he might be in France for a while yet. He asked me to come and visit.

After March 1, Efrem stopped logging into his Whatsapp or Viber accounts, and his phone went straight to voicemail.

Tracking a missing minor is difficult. As with much of the response to refugees in Europe, the most vital efforts are being made by volunteers with limited authority or resources. 

The French do not take missing children reports for migrants, Michael McHugh from the Refugee Youth Service told me - partly because France is considered a transit country. "Child protection services in Europe are not really geared up for people on the move,” he said.

McHugh also spoke of the many reasons a teenager could go out of contact - they could have been trafficked, injured, or have made it across to England and cut all contact. Some young people are in a lot of debt to smugglers from the cost of the journey to Europe, and may be forced to work to repay it, or they might have gone into hiding to avoid doing so.

Others have their phones - their only lifeline - confiscated by the police, something McHugh said is becoming more and more common. One refugee told me his phone was thrown in a river by Greek authorities, while another 15-year-old said French security smashed his screen. Sometimes teenagers are killed after being hit by cars or trucks while trying to board them. In summer 2015, I attended the funeral of a 17-year-old Eritrean who fell down a hole while attempting to evade the Calais police in the dead of night. In January last year I witnessed the raw grief at a memorial for a 15-year-old Afghan boy called Masud who suffocated to death in a lorry. 

In early 2016 alone, Europol estimated that at least 10,000 unaccompanied minors had disappeared while travelling through Europe, sparking fears they were being targeted by organised criminal gangs.

When a minor goes missing in Calais and someone notices (not always guaranteed), McHugh or another volunteer or charity worker will report it to CTAC – the UK’s Child Trafficking Advice Centre, run by the NSPCC in partnership with the Home Office and other agencies.

When I told him what had happened, McHugh also offered to print out a photo of Efrem and put it up around Calais and nearby Dunkirk, asking anyone who knew him to get in touch.

“Every child has the right to have an adult looking after them,” he replied when I expressed hesitation. 

“It’s the pensioners, the anarchists, the Calais old age pensioners, the activists, the journalists that care about these children. We are all these kids have.”

Nine months after the Jungle camp was closed, there are again hundreds of teenagers sleeping rough around Calais, according to Annie Gavrilescu at charity Help Refugees. Research done by the Refugee Rights Data Project in April found 97 per cent of them had experienced police violence, and 95 per cent have no access to legal advice. Some 92 per cent had been woken and moved on by police while trying to snatch a few hours of sleep.

It’s hard to get figures on how many minors have left French reception centres since October, because the centres themselves don’t always report the disappearances, Gavrilescu said. Instead of classifying minors as “missing,” they are classified as “unaccounted for”. No one’s responsible for these children, she noted.

This week, the UK High Court will hear a legal challenge brought by Help Refugees. Campaigners argue that the government didn’t bring over enough unaccompanied refugee children under the Dubs Amendment and didn’t properly consult with local authorities who were willing to offer more places to minors. They are also pushing the government to commit to offering sanctuary to the remaining 280 refugee children it promised places to under the Dubs amendment. So far, only 200 minors have been moved to the UK of a pledged 480, all of whom came from the Calais camp.

***

For Efrem, legal routes weren’t enough. Nearly two months after he went off the radar, he called me.

He had made it to the UK - “Birmingham! In a hotel!” - and had been there for the last month. Someone had taken his phone but he had it back again, Efrem said. He came in under the Channel crammed into the back of a truck, hedged in with a group of others.

Now he was waiting again - for his asylum interview. “I’m very happy,” he laughed.

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