Wednesday

17th Jan 2018

Magazine

Unwanted exodus

  • Member states were quicker to act on their own, and populist politicians exploited the European lull (Photo: Josh Zakary)

Europe used to take pride in inspiring the masses by its values, liberal democracy, freedom and solidarity.

In 2012, it was awarded the Nobel peace prize for having built a peaceful political structure through consensus in a war-ravaged continent, tolerant societies and being the biggest contributor to development aid to less fortunate spots in the world.

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  • (Photo: iom.int)

Yet since hundreds of thousands risked their lives to reach Europe's shores fleeing war, persecution, or looking for a better life, the EU has been struggling to figure out what to do with the influx, unprecedented in scope since the second world war.

The refugee crisis shook the border-free travel system, Schengen, one of the core principles of the EU, and eroded the idea that Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is undisputed in her position.

According to figures from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, over 876,000 people had arrived towards the end of the year by sea to the continent, with over 220,000 arriving in October alone.

Desperate and exhausted migrants from mostly Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have crossed in rubber dinghies from Turkey to Greece aided by smugglers, and made their way through the Balkan states, re-entering EU soil in Hungary, later in Croatia and continued onto the popular destinations in Germany or Scandinavia.

Over the course of 12 months, eight formal, informal, and "mini" EU summits have been devoted to the refugee crisis, including one with the Balkan states and a separate summit with Turkey.

Relocation plan

Concrete European measures have remained weak and came rather too late.

Under a relocation plan, member states agreed after bitter bickering to distribute among them over a two-year period 160,000 people in need of international protection who were already in Greece or Italy.

The decision was made in September, when some 10,000 people had been entering the EU per day.

Only a few dozen asylum seekers have been actually relocated since.

Repeated pledges by member states to strengthen the EU's external borders and register and filter genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants, have not materialised.

EU agencies, such as the border agency, Frontex, still lack manpower, and setting up registration points for refugees, so-called "hotspots" proved to be a tedious task.

In a desperate political attempt to stem the flow of migrants, the EU overlooked Turkey's increasing tendency towards autocratic rule and pledged 3 billion euros to Ankara in exchange for Turkey's help to stop people.

Not helping the politicians' compass, the public's attitude has been fluctuating.

The outpouring of sympathy after 71 Syrian refugees suffocated in August in a trafficker's truck in Austria, and after Turkish shores washed up the body of drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, in September, was followed by anxieties about the costs and cultural implications of the migrant flow.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people and a passport indicated that one of the attackers had travelled to Europe as a refugee, security concerns about the unidentified masses grew.

Borders are back

Member states were quicker to act on their own, and populist politicians exploited the European lull.

The EU's so-called Dublin asylum system, under which the first member state where an asylum seeker enters the EU needs to register them, failed, as Greece struggled to handle the mass movement.

When the pressure grew over the summer, Hungary erected a razor-wire fence with Serbia and later with Croatia, the first between EU member states, to prevent the flow of people. Austria and Slovenia followed with shorter fences, while each country transported migrants towards Germany by bus.

The pressure on borders ignited heated exchanges and a brief economic embargo between Serbia and Croatia, short tempers seen for the first time since the Balkan wars ended.

Border controls were back in place throughout the migrant route, and the Paris terror attacks reignited debate on whether free movement within the EU is truly a blessing or a curse.

The threat to Schengen

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned in November that if the Schengen system fails, the single currency, the euro, would tumble as well, because then "it makes no sense".

The threat to Schengen was also used as a political bargaining chip against the Eastern European states as the crisis unveiled an East-West divide with the easterners being less open to refugees.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia were overruled in the council on the relocation scheme, with Budapest and Bratislava challenging the decision at the Court of Justice.

A bulk of European policies was driven by Germany, which officially expects to take in more than 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

In what has proven to be her most important political decision in her 10 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel announced an open-door policy during the summer, pledging to give asylum to all Syrians.

She was blamed at home and abroad for encouraging the mass influx.

In her dealings with European partners, a fundamental conflict has emerged: Germany is interested in slowing down the masses, the Balkan states and the EU countries along the way are interested in waving through the people as fast as they can.

Merkel's persuasiveness was also on the wane at home, where the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats challenged her welcoming policy, shaking up her imperturbable governing coalition.

No end

Populists and extremists will continue to reap the benefits of the lacklustre European coordination efforts and make political gains, further eroding solidarity within Europe.

In the meantime, mainstream politicians are working hard to stop the influx, and a new Turkish effort might slow the flow of people.

But refugees are determined, they have a lot to lose.

"I want to pay taxes, live a normal life, we don't want to be a burden to anyone," said one lawyer fleeing from Damascus, stranded between Slovenia and Croatia.

He told EUobserver in September, asking for anonymity out of fear for his family: "This is the first time in history, people pay to get killed. There are no words to describe how dangerous the journey is from Greece."

He said he sold two cars, gold, and a house to pay for the journey, and decided to leave when it was clear that the war in Syria was not drawing to an end, and that the international community was not stepping in to help.

"You don't want to see your child blown to pieces," he said.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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