Sunday

16th May 2021

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.

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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

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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