How the EU should respond adequately to the surge in the numbers of refugees seeking to enter Europe continues as I write.

The situation has changed and worsened quite dramatically since I wrote “Europe’s Rio Grande” three months ago. The tempo of arrivals has increased. Thousands continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, bolstered by the fact that they are now likely to be picked up and rescued by European ships rather than ignored. Media attention has switched to the separate flow of refugees, mainly from the Middle East, arriving in Greece after the shorter and far less dangerous boat journey via Turkey. There has been dramatic news footage of thousands arriving on Kos and other Greek islands and later of crowds pressing to enter Macedonia and then Serbia en route to Hungary and the prosperous countries beyond . There is now a growing awareness across Europe that the issue is very much a live one – demanding an urgent response. There is little consensus on what to do.

The “thread” began on 22 August in the wake of the suggestion from the German Interior Minister that Germany could receive up to 800,000 refugees in 2015. “A game changer” as a left wing friend posted on Facebook, suggesting that Ireland (and the EU)) would have to get its act and reaction very much together. I have made two contributions, the first signalling what might be expected of Ireland in terms of burden sharing, if this were to become a reality, (45-80,000) the second recalling what was done just over a decade ago when Ireland, almost totally unprepared, was confronted with the unheralded and unexpected arrival of thousands of asylum seekers (45,000 over five years). While many are calling for more to be done for the refugees, few are putting a figure on what Ireland could/should do in terms of taking numbers beyond calling for an increase in the 600 we have already contracted to take.

An issue that clearly has a long way to run.



I’m not sure how the Germans came up with 800,000. The ballpark figure for current refugees being bandied about is around five million or around 1% of the EU population. In Germany’s case 1% = 800,000, so perhaps that’s how. A similar calculation would give a figure for Ireland of 45,000 or so. A calculation based on contributions to the EU budget, where Ireland gives roughly 1.8%, would work out at around 80,000 for Ireland.

But these are back-of-envelope figures. What about the already expressed reservations of many of the 2004 intake into the EU of taking more than a handful at best? Does anyone see the UK taking plus or minus half a million? Or the Netherlands 200,000? Only Sweden appears to be taking the notionally “correct quota” at present. Moreover German demographics also are such that Germany requires immigrants young enough to work. This doesn’t apply across the board -e.g. we’re always boasting of having one of the youngest populations in Europe, so we don’t “need” immigrants in the economic sense.

There has been very little joined up thinking by politicians on this across Europe but what is very apparent is growing public resistance in a number of countries to taking in more than a token number of new immigrants. Perhaps an IGC to tackle what Merkel has rightly flagged as THE major issue facing the EU is the way forward, but how quickly and when? Meanwhile the crisis mounts.


I see Merkel and Hollande are meeting today, inter alia to discuss the refugee/migrant situation.

We’ll see what if anything emerges from this. As I mentioned earlier an IGC (or at the very least a formal EU summit) could be the next step. Whether there is any possibility of securing EU consensus on burden sharing is very much open to doubt, given the lukewarm and patchy reaction to the Commission’s modest proposals several months ago to share out 50,000, together with the flat rejection by several countries of taking ANY.

I heard one reporter today suggesting that Germany was arm twisting the Central Europeans to accept some – pointing to the billions provided to those countries before and after accession. Even assuming their efforts meet with success, there is likely to be a considerable shortfall in the numbers countries agree to take. Any compulsory burden sharing would require treaty change. Good luck with that!

I’m not sure that the 800,000 figure “Germany expects” is on the mark. It would imply at least a doubling of the current flows in the remaining four months of the year. Certainly the number will be huge but I suspect the 800k figure was in part a trial balloon to wake countries up to the potential dimension of the problem. That Guardian article was interesting in that it made the point I had already flagged – that demographics will require Germany to import millions of immigrants to supplement its aging workforce and that this was true for many other EU states (though not Ireland).

Our attitude may well be determined in part by the common travel area and clearly a Brexit would have consequences here. Some figures to ponder in terms of our capacity to absorb refugees is what happened during the surge in asylum seekers at the beginning of the century. In 1998 we recorded 4626 asylum applications; in 1999 that figure rose to 7724. In 2000 it jumped to 10938, was 10325 in 2001 before peaking at 11634 in 2002. There was a sharp decline to 7900 in 2003, and 4766 in 2004 as new procedures came into force. (Currently the much reduced level of applications is running at double last year’s figure – 1481 to end June as opposed to 1448 for all of 2014).

The point to note here is that, in a five year period, largely flying by the seat of our pants, in terms of people turning up and claiming asylum, Ireland handled around 45,000 new arrivals, all dependent on the state’s resources for support. Not all arrived at once, but all were dealt with, with at times 1000 per month arriving. So methods and procedures have evolved, and there is a body of experience built up, whatever may be thought of the deficiencies in the system, including areas like direct provision.

The unremarked elephant-in-the-room is public opinion throughout Europe, which seems to be intensifying against immigrants as the numbers rise. Jamal Osman was talking with Keelin Shanley this morning and spoke of a sea change in attitude, suggesting there is now growing hatred towards asylum seekers and immigrants in sharp contrast to the attitude when he arrived in Britain in 1999. That description may be too stark but his observations should be borne in mind.

A final thought. There is a less than delicious irony in Hungary’s planned border fence with Serbia to keep refugees out. In 1989 it was Hungary’s decision to open its border with Austria, allowing East Germans “out, ” that accelerated the collapse of the Communist system in Central Europe.


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