The sight of the Mediterranean Sea crowded with sails and ships at sunset used to be an inspiration for artists and poets alike, who traveled avidly across Southern Europe to dwell both in the ruins of ancient civilizations and the natural beauty of the Mediterranean environment in what was called the “Grand Tour”, the 19th-century equivalent of our road trips. However, modern border agents and coastal guards might disagree on the concept, as the sight of ships crossing the sea from the South has recently become source of anxiety, rather than marvel, the reason being that, in the past few months, similar ships have dropped over a half million of cold, hungry and homeless human beings onto European soil. The number is expected to double by the end of 2015 according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, constituting an unprecedented record since World War 2. The extraordinary magnitude of the phenomenon caused the most reactionary of Europeans to cry catastrophe in the best case scenario, or to trench behind barbed wire fences in the worst cases, and while the common folk does its best to prepare for the coming months, the gears of European politics have started to turn – with their usual, relaxed pace – in order to handle what has become a real humanitarian emergency.
As it often happens, this seemingly apocalyptic scenario has an explanation: it turns out that the men and women stranded on our sandy shores are for the vast majority Syrians forced out of their homes by the ongoing civil war that is ravaging the country. The conflict exploded in 2011, in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of uprisings and protests in most of the Sunni Middle Eastern and North African world with the more or less evident support of the West, that led to the downfall of several dictatorial or quasi-dictatorial regimes in the region (usually replacing them with either anarchy or Muslim extremism, but that’s another story). Accordingly with the spirit of the movement, the protesters demanded President Bashar al-Assad to resign or at least to reform the country towards a more liberal and democratic system. Claiming his rule to be the result of the rightful will of the Syrian people (minds far more illustrious than ours will discuss the truthfulness of such claims), Assad labeled the insurgents as traitors and terrorists and reacted with police repression. When part of the Syrian military defected to the rebels’ side, the rebellion turned into a large scale conflict, conducted in utter neglect of most basic standards of civilized warfare by both sides, that caused innumerable casualties among civilians, as well as the destruction of many Syrian cities. With the simultaneous and unexpected rise of the Islamic State, an extremist organization that aims to create a Caliphate on the Syrian and Iraqi territories and to wage a holy war (the so-called “jihad”) against the West, the Syrian people soon realized that fleeing the country was their best chance to avoid getting caught in the fire. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates that about 4 million Syrians left their homes since the start of the war, seeking sanctuary abroad. What happened to them?
More than half of the Syrian refugees found shelter in camps in the neighbouring countries, namely Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, while those headed towards the wealthier Persian Gulf states found the borders closed and their asylum applications rejected, which caused widespread indignation among the international community. The remaining part decided to try the treacherous and exhausting path towards Europe, either across the Mediterranean Sea or by land through the Anatolian peninsula, often enduring inhuman conditions that left way more victims than beneficiaries at the end of the journey. The overwhelming death toll, as well as the inability of the EU to cope with the unexpected number of refugees that reached the borders in the last few months, that caused the apposite facilities to become overcrowded and short of supplies for all, heavily struck the European public opinion, generating a wave of sympathy – or fear – that was easily manipulated by politicians and media in order to raise ratings and consensus. It is the case of the far right-wing parties of the main arrival spots for migrants (Italy, Greece, France and Hungary), which of course exploited the sense of invasion perceived by their citizens to gain votes, reaching a popularity they had seldom – if ever – enjoyed before, but also of the most “politically correct” parties in Europe, which promised a quick and painless solution to the problem for both citizens and refugees, to no avail.
But what are the facts about the crisis, so frequently ignored in the discussion? Too often we hear opinions, from all sides, not backed by hard evidence and based on stereotypes and emotions. Facts as basis for arguments are necessary for a serious assessment of any such complex situation and, therefore, below are presented the most important information and data related to the refugee crisis.
The United Nations definition of a refugee is a person that “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
The United Nations definition of a migrant “should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.”
According to the EU’s Dublin Regulations, “the first Member State in which the application for international protection was lodged shall be responsible for examining it”, unless the applicant meets specific criteria laid out in the Regulation.
According to Eurostat there were almost 600,000 asylum applications in the EU in the first 8 months of 2015, compared to less than 250,000 (140% increase) in the same period of 2014. Six countries that received the biggest amount of applications this year are Germany (245,675 or 42%), Hungary(98,070 or 17%), Sweden (48,725 or 8%), France (32,155 or 5%) Italy (30,536 or 5%) and Austria (28,310 or 5%).
In the first 8 months of 2015 there were more than 20,000 applicant from each of the following countries: Syria (122,535 or 21%), Kosovo (65,685 or 11%), Afghanistan (61,295 or 10%), Albania (43,650 or 7%), Iraq (33,595 or 6%), Serbia (22,325 or 4%), Pakistan (20,525 or 4%) and Eritrea (20,205 or 3%).
Among applicants, the biggest group holds Syrian citizenship. According to UNHCR, there are more than 4,000,000 registered Syrian refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries (that does not include more than 270,000 asylum applications filed by Syrian citizens in the EU).
Under the recently accepted plan, a total of 160,000 refugees will be relocated across the EU member states. The EU will provide a budget of € 780,000,000, with member states receiving €6000 per refugee accepted.
The escalation of the refugee crisis has caused political turmoil across Europe and the World and there are many, often contradictory, views and approaches to how the crisis should be solved. The refugees are heading mostly towards the European Union and it is this organisation that is currently very much involved in attempts to tackle the situation. Therefore, we will start with outlining the current political scene within the EU.
The European Union consists of 28 member states which means that there are 28 different governments with 28 different (although occasionally convergent) views, positions and interests. This often requires tough and very long negotiations as well as difficult concessions from some of the states. Nonetheless, so far, with every crisis the EU was able to find a middle ground, a compromise that every member state could accept. However, the current refugee crisis has exposed still existing divisions within the EU. Finding a solution that would appease everybody is especially troublesome as this is yet another in a series of crises and problems that struck the EU in recent years (the Greek crisis, the situation in the Ukraine, the threat of the United Kingdom leaving the Union, to name but a few). Therefore, it seems that some member states will not be willing to concede this time.
The greatest amount of asylum applications is filed in Germany and it is this country that the biggest amount of refugees is trying to reach. The reason for that is that Germany immediately provides basic needs such as housing, food and healthcare for the refugees. Additionally, some of the refugees have families that already live there. On top of that, Germany has an opinion of a country that is very welcoming of refugees – German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be their strongest advocate in the EU. In August she said: “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due”. Later that month, German Chancellor also said that her country is expecting and ready to accept 800,000 refugees (amount almost equal to 1% of Germany’s population) by the end of the year. In the first week of September, together with the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, Angela Merkel has decided to allow refugees to be transferred from Hungary, against the Dublin Regulations. Her stance and actions brought her the nickname “mama Merkel”. However, on the 13th of September her government closed Germany’s border with Austria to stop an influx of refugees. This move has created a dangerous precedent and raised discussion in the EU about the future of the Schengen Area. Despite that, Germany is an EU country that is so far one of the most welcoming for the asylum seekers and it seems that Chancellor Merkel wants other EU countries to share her approach and distribute the refugees across the Union.
Opposition voices come mostly from Eastern European member states, Hungary in particular. For many refugees it is the first EU country they reach and, according to the Dublin Regulations, it is, therefore, the country that should examine the asylum applications. However, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is not keen on accepting the refugees that have come to his country in recent weeks in unprecedented numbers. In the beginning of September he said: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.” Later that month he also said: “We don’t want to and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.” Those comments have spurred criticism as well as praise both domestically and internationally. Many say that his views are racist and, in fact, European values demand that nobody should discriminate against other people, especially not on the basis of their religion or nationality. Others support him in his tough stance on the refugees and claim that he is the true defender of the EU by upholding the Dublin Regulations and not allowing the asylum seekers to advance further into Europe. To stop the influx of refugees, Prime Minister Orbán has built a wall on Hungary’s 177 km long border with Serbia, effectively blocking the asylum seekers from reaching his country and forcing them to look for passage in Croatia. This and, as some claim, very brutal treatment of refugees by Hungarian police have raised questions about whether Orbán’s actions are legal under the EU law. Hungarian Prime Minister dismisses such claims and says accepting the refugees will only escalate the problem and instead the EU should invest money in refugee camps outside of its borders.
On the 22nd of September, the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council took place in Brussels. During the meeting, the Justice and Home Affairs ministers of all the EU member states have made a decision to relocate additional 120,000 refugees (mainly from Greece and Italy that cannot cope with the amounts of refugees that they receive on daily basis) among the EU countries under a quota system. The decision, however, was not unanimous as 4 countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) voted against it, while Finland abstained. This has raised controversy because usually decisions that affect member states’ sovereignty are made unanimously on the level of heads of state and government. Instead, the extraordinary Council was on the level of ministers and because of that the opposition could have been (and was) outvoted by the qualified majority (majority of at least 55% of member states that are home to at least 65% of the EU’s population). Some of the opposing countries have called the decision a “dictate” but intend to implement it while Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico is planning to challenge it in court. The Council’s decision’s outcome clearly shows the member states’ stances on the crisis: while majority is willing to accept refugees, others are not going to give up on this one. At the same time, it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority during the Council should not be taken for granted. Some of the countries that voted in favour of the decision expressed their opposition before the meeting and only changed their stance last minute (e.g. Poland). As the number of refugees is growing rather than decreasing, one can expect that other meetings will take place where refugee relocation will be discussed. In fact, the European Commision under President Jean-Claude Juncker is preparing a quota system that, if adopted, would oblige all the member states to automatically accept a share of the asylum seekers, based on indicators such as GDP or population, without the necessity of repeated meetings and negotiations. Such a quota system will certainly face a much bigger opposition front and may be very difficult, if not impossible, to adopt. It seems that the motto of the European Union, “United in diversity”, is not reflected in the current European politics and when it comes to the refugee crisis, it is unlikely that this will change in the nearest future.
Although the EU is the main party involved in the crisis, it is not the only one. The United Nations is trying to help the Syrian refugees since the start of the Syrian War by providing them basic needs and setting up and supplying refugee camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries. However, Regional Refugee Resilience Plan, aimed at helping the Syrian refugees, is extremely underfunded. Out of $ 4,5 billion required by UNHCR in 2015, only $ 1,839 billion (41%) has been raised so far. As a result, the United Nations’ plan cannot be implemented in many of its vital areas, resulting in worsening situation of the refugees in the region and possibly also in their decision to seek refuge further in Europe.
It is also worth noting that the criticism is growing over other developed countries for not accepting enough refugees and considering the crisis as the problem of the European Union alone. Countries such as United States, Canada and Australia are pressured to also help the refugees through the UNHCR resettlement programme. In response, Australia’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has agreed to accept additional 12,000 refugees, while US will increase its refugee intake by 15,000 in the next year. Voices are also being raised against the rich Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar as neither of them has accepted a single Syrian refugee to this day.
Above are presented only some of the views on the crisis and the possible ways of tackling the problem. As the refugees became the topic number one in media in recent weeks, multiple different opinions were and are presented by people from all fields. But what are their arguments? How do they support their views and how are they trying to convince the top EU politicians to take decisions that they think are right? Below are the most often used arguments both in favour and against accepting the refugees in the European Union.
Advocates of a welcoming policy towards migrants and refugees alike make themselves carriers of the constituting values of the European Union itself: a border-free bulwark of democracy which should never turn its back on countries in need, especially considering that, not so long ago, Europeans themselves fled their own countries seeking fortune overseas because there was nothing but war and misery awaiting them back home. This phaenomenon is no different. However, the reasons why acceptance of these asylum-seekers might be a wise idea fare way beyond sheer ideology. With the recent concerns raised by the rise of the Islamic State, which only rekindled the short-extinguished fire of religious divergence in Europe and throughout the world, the unsurprising result was the fear. Fear inspired especially by right-wing parties all over the continent, of terrorist infiltrations among the refugees, which would serve two main purposes: terrorist attacks in the major European capitals (as it was also announced by the IS itself in some of their blackmail videos) and the ultimate conversion of Europe to Wahhabism, the most extremist current of Sunni Islam. While we will never be able to tell with certainty if and where terrorists are concealed, we can tell that the Muslim minority in the continent represents no threat: constituting now nearly 4% of the overall European population, it would see its number barely affected at all, even if Europe were to welcome the entire amount of 4 million refugees.
In addition to the already critical situation, the EU is still struggling to recover from the last crisis, with much concern focused on employment and on the job market in general. This led to the general misconception that workplaces in Europe should be reserved for European citizens and that integrating migrants and refugees into our system will increase unemployment, thus worsening our already damaged economy. Academic research has however been unable to prove any causal relationship between the two so far, although numerous studies have been conducted on the subject, especially at top British universities. We should also take into account that many Syrian refugees are actually educated and skilled workers, that can constitute valuable workforce and even start their own businesses, thus increasing the supply of workplaces and lowering unemployment. Due to the nature of their occupation, it would also be reasonable to expect that they would not contribute to increase the crime rate, provided that they are integrated and absorbed into our system properly, which would also provide the hosting country with a higher tax revenue. Not to mention that they could help solve the problem of many of the EU’s country aging societies. With the due precautions and the proper measures, this stream of young and promising folks might prove an opportunity worth seizing.
Many prominent European politicians voice their opposition to accepting the refugees and their opinions often reflect that of their voters’ and usually focus on social and economic costs that the EU and its citizens would have to bear if it were to accept the refugees. as well as safety threats that Europe might face. An often used argument is that terrorist organisations such as Islamic State may attempt to send soldiers among the refugees and conduct terrorist attacks in the EU. However, as we have seen in the past, terrorist organisations do not need to infiltrate groups of refugees in order to execute attacks. Additionally, Islamic State is currently trying to secure the territories that they have acquired in the last year and fend off against the US-led coalition airstrikes. Therefore, at the moment, conducting terrorist attacks in Europe is a rather unimportant goal for them. Another argument is that of the EU’s finances – supporting the refugees in such big numbers would require considerable funds that could otherwise be directed towards European citizens. That is certainly true. The € 780 million budgeted so far for the relocation of refugees, the total of € 4 billion spent on aid for Syrians and € 1,28 billion allocated to solving “root causes of irregular migration in Africa” together amount for more than € 6 billion. And those are only the biggest costs. What is more, it seems like the EU will have to spend even more in the near future, whether on accepted asylum applicants or for improving the situation of the refugee camps outside of its borders. Aditionally, some (mostly Eastern and Southern European) member states have insufficient facilities for receiving big amounts of refugees and further investments would be necessary in that area. What is more, many claim that cultural differences might prove to be too big of an obstacle for their full integration with the European societies and that they will reap the benefits of the developed welfare states while not working and contributing to them and causing crime. Those arguments are oddly similar to the same ones used in recent years in reference to people migrating from Eastern to Western European member states. However, in the last decade crime rates in the EU have been steadily dropping while some of the Western and North European countries with the biggest amounts of migrant did not see their economies shattered. Lastly, an argument often used is that accepting refugees will not solve the root of the problem and will only encourage others to follow. Certainly, until Syrian War and other conflicts in the region and around the Globe stop, more and more people will become refugees and many of them might decide to head for Europe. Therefore, accepting the refugees without further actions will not solve the crisis and taking action only when the amount of refugees increases even more might turn out to be too little and too late.
While the battle rages both on the sandy battlefields of Syria and in the quieter halls of the European institutions, a solution seems still out of reach. With neither faction willing to concede for the sake of the Union’s cohesion, the power might lie more in the hands of the citizens than in those of the politicians. The several rallies organized throughout Europe in order to gather food, clothes and medicine for the refugees and the fundraising activities promoted by non-governmental associations such as the UNHCR have been unexpectedly successful. Perhaps because of the increasing use of social networks and the Internet in general to coordinate efforts even between different countries, or perhaps because of the spreading awareness, especially among the youth, that these people do need our help, and that they deserve it. Not because of any political or economic reason, but simply as human beings. They are no different than us: they used to enjoy the same commodities and leisures that we are accustomed to, and that were denied to them because their homes were destroyed or their families were slaughtered in the civil war (a civil war to which Europe has at the very least granted its complacency). Moreover, many of the stereotypes and concerns surrounding the incoming refugees have turned out to be untrue and unfounded, and there actually is evidence that our economy could even benefit from the inflow. The very simple fact that our moral obligation to host them and allow them to integrate into our society is still matter of discussion should make us wonder about the present state of our Union. At the moment, the EU looks much like a marriage on the verge of divorce: the forced coexistence of members that feel their sovereignty under threat at any time and aren’t willing to meet each other halfway under any circumstance. It is obvious that, under these premises, nothing good will ever come from European politics either for this and any other problem faced by the Union so far. However, the current crisis will not disappear and a solution must be found. We now see the effects of 4 years of ignoring the Syrian War and unless the EU steps in to end the conflict and help millions of refugees whether they are outside or inside its borders, the crisis will escalate and catch up with Europe sooner or later on an even greater scale. Solving the crisis will, without doubt, require enormous political effort as well as considerable amounts of money. And here a questions poses itself: can we afford helping the refugees? Perhaps the questions we should be asking is whether we can afford not to help them.