Thursday

15th Nov 2018

Opinion

EU refugee crisis: History repeating

  • Belgian and French refugees in April 1918 (Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

From the rising number of refugees trying to reach Europe’s frontiers, it appears as if European member states and the European Union are trying to cope with a crisis of unprecedented scale.

Other emergencies have seized the headlines - terrorism, Greece’s bail-out, and climate change - yet, no subject has been so prevalent as the refugee crisis.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Warning signs have gone up in some of the European states, both in the Union’s periphery but also in the core. Hungary has built a fence, to protect its national borders, and others are quickly following suit.

Even Germany and Sweden, ever so welcoming, seem more and more ambivalent as regards the staggering number of people that will reach Europe now and in the New Year.

Europe has a large capacity and the resilience to receive large numbers of refugees, but will it continue to cope?

The Syrian civil war has been one of the biggest tests so far for European solidarity and inter-state cooperation.

But it is far from unprecedented.

Nothing new under the sun

The Yugoslav wars also led to sudden flows of up to 1 million individuals, fleeing their homes and seeking refuge in other European states. Going further in time, the two World Wars perhaps brought about the biggest flows of refugees and displaced persons in modern times.

The inter-war period has sometimes been hailed as an era of refugees. What can we take way from these past episodes?

One of the major lessons is that refugee crises always start as a temporary phenomenon but tend to last.

The work is never finished. Inter-war Europe was hit by several refugee crises involving a high number of people, the result of the Russian revolution and civil war (over 1 million), and tensions between Turkey and Greece (up to 2 million).

The rise of Nazi Germany also pushed German citizens toward emigration (around 600,000).

Throughout this period, Europe was also coping with other problems, often similar to those of today: financial and economic havoc; worries about gaping budget deficits; and continued conflicts at the fringes of the continent.

Refugee crises confront societies with many questions at the same time. Not only in terms of capacity and security, but also with regard to the long-term effects of refugee settlement.

Politicians of the inter-war period grappled with questions over the employment, education, and integration of newcomers.

Hostility among the public and media was there as well, despite palpable evidence that refugees had been through situations of terror and threat to reach their destinations.

Then and now, national governments showed great reluctance to welcome newcomers and spend additional money on refugee settlement. Similar to the European Union today, the League of Nations was tasked with finding a solution.

Fridtjof Nansen

It called for the help of a Norwegian statesman, Fridtjof Nansen, to come up with effective solutions.

Nansen’s story is often overlooked, yet there is much to learn from his personal commitment to the refugee matter. The League was in no position to offer much financial support, so Nansen relied upon private aid, his negotiation skills, and a great dose of creativity to tackle successive waves of refugees.

It is estimated that the League and Nansen’s Refugee Organisation may easily have helped more than 1 million individuals, often directly, in finding refuge in a European country.

Many were transported by boats or trains across the continent, coming from far way, in such an efficient way it cost no more than one English pound per refugee.

He poked host countries into creating opportunities for employment and education. He also devised a passport which gave legal protection for refugees and ensured a safe passage across borders.

Why? Because every anonymous mass of refugees consists of individuals, each one with a name, a family, and a story to tell. For his work, Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

Today, there is definitely no lack of committed individuals and original ideas, often connected to smaller projects dealing with the refugees crisis on the ground.

But creative solutions should also come from the top. The European Asylum Support Office does little more than collecting information and enhancing cooperation.

National governments worry over quotas rather than putting thought into structural solutions.

There are simple but effective instruments available.

What made the difference during the inter-war years was the facilitation of refugee transport, the effective dispersal of refugees within countries, employment schemes to get people into work, temporary housing, and accessible schooling for the young.

The costs were far from insurmountable. As the story of Nansen shows, humanitarianism has often been a story of trial and uncertain outcomes. It requires experiments, and some pay off while others don’t.

EU fit for purpose?

Do we still have that creative edge? Perhaps we have become fearful of the other reaching our European shores, all too often neglecting their hazardous journey to get there.

Fear will prevail, unless we show a collective capacity to cope with this and the next crisis.

Rather than ignoring the problem, building fences, or propping up neighbouring states with money to halt the tide of refugees, there is another path to be taken.

One which involves commitment and a broad coalition of European communities, small and large. Remember, this era of refugees is not new, it is not unprecedented, it has all happened before.

Quincy R. Cloet is a historian affiliated with the College of Europe Natolin Campus, Warsaw. He is currently writing a PhD on the League of Nations and inter-war international co-operation at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales

Sweden keen to slow Europe's 'refugee highway'

German, Swedish, and Danish ministers have vowed to maintain the EU's passport-free Schengen zone amid broader moves to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers.

US steps in to clean up Cyprus

Cyprus has overlooked undertakings on bank probity made to the EU in the context of the 2013 bailout - but it might prove harder to get the US off its back.

Macron's 'European army': why is everyone talking about it?

Few people commented on one key point in Macron's statement: he did not justify the idea of a European army by the need to intervene in Africa, which would have been France's traditional approach. Instead, he invoked the Russian threat,

EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name

Sergei Magnitsky gave his life to fighting corruption. The least we can do is to honour his sacrifice in the name of the legislation that his heroism inspired.

News in Brief

  1. Full text of Brexit withdrawal agreement published
  2. UK cabinet agrees Brexit deal after marathon session
  3. Czechs join other EU states in rejecting UN migration pact
  4. EU Commission to give verdict on Italy budget next week
  5. EU's Tusk is Poland's most trusted politician
  6. Finland prepares to step in for Romania on EU presidency
  7. Trump threatens tariffs on EU wine
  8. US defence chief backs Nato amid 'EU army' calls

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. US steps in to clean up Cyprus
  2. 'Decisive progress' on Brexit as British cabinet backs deal
  3. Asylum for Macedonia's ex-PM put Orban on spot
  4. How the 'EU's Bank' fails to raise the bar on accountability
  5. Knives out on all sides for draft Brexit deal
  6. Romania data chief defends forcing press to reveal sources
  7. EU to review animal welfare strategy
  8. Macron's 'European army': why is everyone talking about it?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us