The anguish of seeing a toddler’s body washing up on the Turkish coast gripped us all for the last few days. As Europe struggles with one of the largest humanitarian crises after World War 2, questions and accusations are flying thick and fast on the failure of the European Union (EU) to respond. The EU is confronted with the biggest refugee and migration influx and the wars in Syria and Iraq have only exacerbated the exodus to Europe that also includes people coming in from Afghanistan, Pakistan and conflict zones in Africa.
The unabated flow of people risking everything to get on to a boat to Europe, and depending on ruthless smugglers has created fault lines within the EU. The south and southeast of the EU is under siege with Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the incoming refugees. The Syrian civil war and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State (Isis) have turned the steady stream of refugees into a raging torrent of humans fleeing war, exploitation and poverty.
A cursory glance at the map of the region raises the question: Why are the refugees heading to the EU and not their immediate neighbourhood? Around 4.5 million Syrian refugees have been on the move and Lebanon, a tiny country, has taken in over 1.2 million and 1.8 million others have gone to Turkey, along with many more escaping to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In stark contrast to these, the wealthy Gulf States like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have not taken in any refugees as they are not signatories to the United Nations refugee convention.
A European consensus on the migration crisis has not come forth as national borders have become stronger calling into question the European solidarity at this time of crisis. In the light of Britain’s refusal to accept more and more refugees last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, termed Britain’s immigration policies as “politically toxic”. Within the EU, under the Dublin regulation, asylum seekers stay in the country they first arrive in till their application gets processed and it is this rule that has turned into a nightmare for Italy and Greece, as since last year the numbers coming across the Mediterranean has swelled.
German chancellor Angela Merkel took a bold step recently when she suspended the Dublin regulation with respect to Syrian refugees and confirmed the country would take in more refugees. This action has also unleashed a larger wave of refugees attempting to cross Hungary and Austria to reach Germany. Merkel’s call for a unified European migration policy has not resonated within the EU. The four Visegrad Group states — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovak — have rejected the proposal of migrant quotas.
Rather, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the crisis was a “German problem”. Both Hungary and Austria enhanced controls within and the border checks can be seen as violating the EU’s open-border policy. The humanitarian crisis has multiple implications, but more importantly, calls into question the norms and values of the EU and in this context, Merkel’s decision of taking moral responsibility has stood out like a beacon of hope.
Across the Atlantic, the growing refugee crisis appears to have taken a backseat in the United States with no leadership in this regard as the country is headed for presidential elections. The economic slowdown in Europe, coupled with the financial crisis, has contributed to the rise of Right-wing and anti-EU political parties, which have only served to enhance the fears that refugees and immigrants will transform society and endanger culture as it is largely a Muslim influx. The responses from some EU countries have only brought out the bigotry into the open as the refugees are seen as a threat to Europe’s prosperity and stability. And for many others, it has raised fears of Isis infiltrating among the refugees and targeting European cities and people.
It is here that Germany has stood out as an exception by taking a stand; this goes back to the time when Germany had the most liberal asylum laws and also to its historical responsibility in Europe. But given that it has taken the largest number of refugees along with Sweden, it has also lead to sharpening of the debate on seeking asylum. The Pope joined other sane voices in calling for protecting and sheltering refugees alongside common people’s initiatives who opened up their homes and helped in cash and kind.
Juncker attempted to devise ways of addressing the crisis on Wednesday, including introducing mandatory quotas that may have the support of the German chancellor and French President Francois Hollande, but will face resistance from the East European countries, who want distinctions to be made between wartime refugees and economic migrants. Given that there are different asylum-processing timelines in the EU, there will also be an attempt at creating wide benchmarks. However, the challenge lies in the EU’s open borders policy and thus holding people back after giving them papers will be difficult and will still lead to internal mobility which will undermine the quota system.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, since January, 350,000 migrants have been registered in Europe, while the actual figures could be more. As Europe faces this dark hour, the bigger question is, whether the issue of refugees is a European regional problem or a global concern; apart from more fundamental issues of what make people refugees.
Ummu Salma Bava teaches at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed by the author are personal