In the hands of Europe - A short diagnosis of the European self and refugee politics

A pertinent article that applies Gestalt into a wider political field, addressing the current crisis in the Mediterranean from the personal perspective of a Norwegian contributor. 

Vikram Kolmannskog is a lawyer specialising in refugee law and human rights, a socio-legal scholar and a Gestalt psychotherapist. He lives in Oslo, Norway. 

The Mediterranean is the most dangerous border between countries that are not at war. There have been more than 15 000 dead or missing since January 1998 and many more uncounted. Recently, the numbers of deaths have increased dramatically. As a border – a “contact boundary” in Gestalt therapy terminology – it is also somewhere we can see the European self in function, i.e. what Europe wants, does and becomes an interaction with the wider environment. 

Many of those now arriving across the sea are legitimate asylum seekers fleeing violent conflicts and persecution. Europe has elaborate formal refugee and human rights instruments, as well as large international humanitarian and development programs. At the same time, Europe attempts to ensure that only a limited number of non-Europeans actually get access to asylum and the rights that are listed in the formal instruments. One of Europe’s hands is open and stretched out, with a consistent self-image of being humanitarian and outward-oriented. The other hand, however, is stopping people on the move; sometimes even clenched into a fist that beats them down.

Some Europeans believe we should take in more people in need. A few call for completely open borders. Others believe there are already too many immigrants and they are not well enough integrated. A few go so far as to explicitly state that asylum seekers should be left to drown. Members of each group define themselves in opposition to the others and devalue them. The compassionate are at best labelled naïve, while those favouring control are labelled cruel. This is an internal conflict of Europe. 

According to polarity theory in Gestalt therapy, individuals as well as groups and societies consist of sides that are complementary rather than dichotomous. It involves an appreciation of diversity in society and the paradoxical truths about people. Ideally, I can be both compassionate and exert control, depending on the situation. A society also needs both values. Europe needs both its hands. Due to a series of factors, however, we risk becoming rigidly fixed in one side of the polarity, typically projecting our blind spot or shadow-side onto others. The compassionate might then become self-effacing, while those concerned with control might become violent in their boundary setting. When intrapersonal, interpersonal and societal conflicts become painful enough and there is sufficient support for new awareness and change, a new balance and integration of the polarity may happen at individual, group and societal levels. 

This may be what is happening with Europe. At some point, control has become extreme, an ugly caricature of itself. Since the two sides of the polarity have become so split and control so unacceptable to the compassionate, much of the extreme control has been occurring at a certain distance or even covertly. Sometimes it seems one hand has not known what the other has been doing. Now, however, with images of dead bodies in the Mediterranean Sea and increased awareness of the whole situation in the media, this manoeuvre may become more difficult. 

Europe is now discussing several solutions to the Mediterranean crisis. These include greater engagement in addressing the complex conflicts and lack of livelihoods in Syria and elsewhere. Such efforts can be acts of compassion. But we should remain aware that the other hand could also still be operating here. Europe has often been criticised for imposing some sort of migration control as part of their asymmetrical “cooperation” with other countries. 

Smuggling is also much discussed at the moment. There seems to be a certain projection of our cruel side onto the smugglers. It could be that when smugglers, who after all are enabling access to Europe, are demonised, it is easier for the controlling hand to continue doing its work without interference of the compassionate hand. There is less internal conflict and both can join to fight the outside evil together. If we are honest, however, many smugglers are exploiting the situation, but they can hardly be seen to be causing it. There is a demand for smuggling, and the reasons include the desperate situation of people in the countries of origin and transit, but also the European policies and practices that make irregular immigration and smuggling the near-only possible way of entry. 

For the foreseeable future many people will attempt the dangerous crossing. A functioning search and rescue system in the Mediterranean Sea is therefore essential to save lives. Launched by Italy in response to the major shipwreck and tragedy near Lampedusa in October 2013, the Mare Nostrum operation rescued over 100,000 people. The UK government has been vocal in saying they would not support future search and rescue operations however, since this could encourage more people to attempt the crossing. We could perhaps say that Mare Nostrum was operated by the compassionate hand, but eventually stopped by the Right hand of the UK. A new effort ‘Joint Operation Triton’, is led by Frontex, the European border agency. With the recent media attention, there are discussions about boosting the operation, but it remains to be seen if the focus will really be more ‘search and rescue’ and not mainly border control. 

There are also some signs of possible change in the way asylum systems are set up. European politicians are now discussing external processing of asylum claims. Rather than having to first arrive irregularly on European shores, people in need of refugee protection could be provided with a humanitarian visa from European embassies and enter Europe safely and legally. Also being discussed are refugee resettlement quotas. Many asylum seekers and refugees in the Middle East and North Africa try to make their way over to Europe by themselves because the hopes for formal refugee resettlement to Europe have been minimal. Increases in these quotas are now being discussed. Norway, currently led by a coalition government of the Conservatives and the populist right party FrP, is considering raising the quota by several thousand. 

Europe has been split between control and compassion, with control eventually becoming extreme in the form of cruel violence. This rigidity has become very visible recently, and there seems to be an increased awareness of the situation with calls for more compassion from many quarters. There is also a more radical challenge to those of us who identify most strongly with the compassionate hand of Europe: as long as the controlling hand is unacceptable to the compassionate, we may not have a true integration of the polarity, and the controlling hand may continue to operate in violent and less visible ways. Integration of both sides, the entire polarity, is called-for in society, in groups as well as by individuals, if we are to become whole and well-functioning. This could entail each of us attempting to notice the controlling and compassionate hands that each of us have, recognising that each hand has some qualities and that they are complementary and might in fact work well together. It might therefore,  require more dialogue and less debate.