Another major crisis is unfolding in Europe. Still struggling to find solutions for the Eurozone and Ukrainian crises, The European elite was hardly prepared to face a serious refugee and migration challenge. The problem has already been unfolding for some time. This year alone, more than 300,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea (including 200,000 to Greece). Over 2,600 did not survive this dangerous journey. More than 70 people were found dead in an abandoned truck in Austria. Even last year about 3500 people were reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea. For years, these people were seen by many Europeans merely as economic migrants. The images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi whose body was found on Turkish shores after a failed attempt to reach Greece finally shocked the Europeans and the world. Further, chaotic scenes in Budapest, where the Hungarian government tried to stop Syrian refugees’ journey towards Germany, forced the European media and its institutions to change the narrative. The UNHCR has clearly declared now that “this is a primarily refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon”.
The way different EU governments have responded to the present crisis has again exposed structural flaws of common EU policies. The Dublin procedure established that the first EU country where a migrant or refugees enters, is responsible for processing his or her asylum claim. This obviously put tremendous pressure on countries like Greece and Italy where most asylum seekers arrived first. In recent months, Hungary has also joined frontline status as refugees are entering its territory from neigbouring Serbia. As most asylum seekers want to go to Germany, Sweden, France or Italy, questions are raised as to why register and house them in a country where they do not want to stay any way.
To alleviate the problem, the EU proposed a quota system to distribute migrants among different nations. All 28 EU member states were required to accept asylum seekers in proportion to the size of their economy, unemployment rate and population. Although the plan was initially backed by Germany, France and Italy, they have now suggested many corrections. The UK was already out of the system. Many East Europeans say it will not work as most asylum seekers want to settle in West Europe. Spain has also rejected the plan. Some have objected to the principle itself. The Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban asserted that “the idea that somebody allows some refugees in their own country and then distributes them to other member states is mad and unfair”. Later he even added that “the problem is not European, it’s German. Nobody would like to stay in Hungary, neither Slovakia, Poland or Estonia”. The smaller nations in former Eastern bloc feel that policies are being imposed on them by bigger members.
The number of asylum seekers in the EU has increased significantly in the last few years. Eurostat data shows that about 625,000 claimed asylum in the EU in 2014. The numbers were high but perhaps not as alarming as presented in European media. Europe has seen high numbers even before, particularly during the Yugoslav crisis. In 1992 alone, there were close to 700,000 applications. In the first half of 2015, close to 434,000 people have filed applications for asylum in Europe. Last year, the largest number of asylum seekers came from Syria (20%), followed by Afghanistan (7%), Kosovo (6%), Eritrea (5%), Serbia (3.5%) and Pakistan (3%). In fact, more people from Pakistan applied for asylum than from Iraq. About one third people applied for asylum in Germany only. One in four asylum seekers was a minor.
As per the UNHCR, over 4 million Syrians are now refugees. It is not that all Syrians are moving towards Europe. About 1.9 million have taken refuge in Turkey. Similarly, about 1.1 million and 630,000 have found shelter in Lebanon and Jordon respectively. Only about 350,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe.
Europeans know that they cannot run away from their responsibility as many of these people have become refugees due to European involvement in shaping conflict outcomes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo. Both Russian and Turkish presidents have blamed the western world for their policies on this crisis.
To tackle the crisis, the EU has urged member states to work out a common strategy based on responsibility and trust. So instead of accusing each other, can Europe’s nations agree on some joint action? Many new plans including EU-wide border protection force, destruction of smuggler ships, reallocation plan for already entered refugees, list of safe countries of origin (Balkan states, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal etc) and reception centres closer to conflict areas will be discussed in the coming weeks. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is soon going to outline his plans to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers across Europe over the next two years.
In the meanwhile, Hungary is building 175 km fence on its border with Serbia. Germany has suspended Dublin rules for Syrian refugees. The Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) has declared that any proposal to introduce quota system is unacceptable to them.
As political and military solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan are nowhere in sight, the refugee crisis in Europe is not going to disappear in a hurry. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres has urged Europe to “reaffirm the values upon which it was built”. Many West European countries led by Germany have shown courage to accept large numbers of refugees this year. Still the message from the Hungarian prime minister to Syrian refugees was entirely different – “please don’t come. Why you have to go from Turkey to Europe? Turkey is a safe country. Stay there, it’s risky to come. We can’t guarantee that you will be accepted here”.
(Gulshan Sachdeva is Chairperson, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, JNU)
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India