Why one child of migrants is defending Eastern Europe in the refugee crisis


LISBON, Portugal — Media reports on the refugee crisis tend to paint Eastern Europe as a hotbed of intolerance toward outsiders. So it’s not especially surprising that a city councilor in Estonia's capital says the region shouldn’t open its doors to the thousands fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

But Abdul Turay is not one of the region's loudmouth xenophobes railing against the migrant threat to white, Christian Europe. In fact, he’s one of Eastern Europe's very few black politicians, born in the UK to West African immigrants.

His argument against Estonia accepting refugees? The refugees would be better off elsewhere.

"I am not in favor of taking asylum seekers here, because we don't have the resources to cope with them," Turay said in an interview with GlobalPost from his home in Tallinn.

"It's not like Sweden, or Germany or the UK. There is no social security system here, so how on earth are these people going to live if they come?" he asked. "How are they going to get a job? How are they going to manage?"

Abdul Turay photographed at a book talk in 2012.

With Europe struggling to respond to an unprecedented wave of asylum seekers, Germany, Sweden, Austria and other nations taking most of the incomers are putting pressure on their eastern neighbors to do more to help.

Germany is preparing to take a record 800,000 asylum seekers and refugees this year. It's angry other European Union members are refusing to share the burden.

"What is not acceptable, in my view, is that some people are saying this has nothing to do with them," Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday in Berlin. "This won't work in the long run. There will be consequences, although we don't want that."

Those consequences could involve cuts in EU subsidies or limits on voting rights for countries that refuse to help, or restrictions on their citizens' cross-border travel within the 28-nation bloc.

"This is a poor country that doesn't have the resources to deal with refugees, [and] it's unfair to drag people here against their will."

Turay says the plan to share out refugees among the 28 member nations through a quota system would force refugees to move against their will to poorer EU countries that are ill-equipped to meet their needs or offer future prospects.

"This is essentially a poor country that doesn't have the resources to deal with refugees, [and] it's unfair to drag people here against their will," Turay says.

The war in Syria and violence elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan have led to record numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe.

Figures from the EU's border agency show 340,000 crossed over the EU's southern frontiers in the first half of this year, almost three times the number for the same period in 2014.

Most are entering through Greece and Italy, or into Hungary through the Balkans. Hungary's conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now infamous for his tough line on accepting migrants, has drawn the ire of rights campaigners and politicians in Western Europe.

View of a refugee camp on the Serbian border, taken Sept. 8.

Orban claims most of the incomers are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees.

He's ordered a wire fence built across Hungary's southern border with Serbia and warned the influx poses an "irreversible" threat to European civilization.

Orban is far from alone in his anti-migrant rants. Politicians in much of Europe have echoed such fears, but those in the east have been particularly outspoken.

Czech President Milos Zeman likens the refugee wave to the deadly tsunami that swept across southeast Asia in 2004. Slovakia says it will take a couple of hundred refugees, but only if they're Christians.

"We should start a pan-European petition to ensure not one of these so-called refugees can escape across the Mediterranean ... the white race is in danger,"

"We should start a pan-European petition to ensure not one of these so-called refugees can escape across the Mediterranean ... the white race is in danger," former Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland posted on Facebook in May, after the EU suggested her country take a few dozen refugees under a quota system.

Last week, somebody set fire to Estonia's only shelter for refugees, where more than 50 people, including 13 children, were staying. The fire was put out within minutes and nobody was hurt.

Refugees warm their hands over hot ash at a migrant collection point near Roszke village on the Hungarian-Serbian border, Sept. 8.

Despite incidents like these and the inflamed rhetoric, Turay says international media exaggerates the levels of bigotry in Eastern Europe.

"This idea of it being a nest of racism, is just not true," he insists. "There are racist people here, but there are racist people everywhere. With this kind of situation, they come to the fore and they make a lot of noise, so people think they represent how everybody feels. They don't."

"This idea of [Eastern Europe] being a nest of racism is just not true. There are racist people here, but there are racist people everywhere."

Turay, a journalist whose parents emigrated from West Africa to England in the 1950s, moved to Tallinn seven years ago with his Estonian wife.

After learning the language, he became a columnist for leading daily newspaper Postimees. In 2013, he was elected a city councilor with the center-left Social Democratic Party. Last year he (unsuccessfully) ran in elections to the European Parliament.  

"The very fact that I was put forward as a candidate, imagine that happening in Britain, an Estonian who'd been there six years and being selected to stand as a euro-MP [member of Parliament], I couldn't imagine it happening the other way ‘round."

Estonia's government fiercely condemned last week’s arson attack. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said it left him "ashamed and embarrassed." Local media highlighted the support residents gave to refugees at the rural center east of Tallinn. 

Like others around the EU in recent days, the Estonian government has suggested it will take more refugees. A new EU plan is expected to allocate around 370 to the Baltic nation of 1.3 million.

"Estonia is not in a position to say no, because it needs money from the European Union," Turay says. But he's skeptical the refugees will linger.

"These people don't want to come here. ... If they get a chance, they'll get on the first plane or ferry and go to Sweden."

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