A MILLION REFUGEES – AND MORE TO COME
2015 has seen much of the empty rhetoric surrounding the “ European Project” and the falsely labelled “European Union” put to the test and found wanting . As the year ends fissures are becoming evident which have the potential to derail the slow groping progress towards a federal Europe. One issue dominates.
Who now gives a second thought to Europe’s early 2015 preoccupation with Greek debt ? The Migrant Crisis – ongoing and threatening to get much worse in 2016 – has very much upset Europe’s applecart and now occupies centre stage with its separate elements of the numbers and types involved, the destinations actual and desired, the disarray and disagreement over burden sharing between countries and the dark spectacle of a terrorist threat.
A million plus people have flooded into Europe in 2015, most in the second half of the year. I wrote in my June column “ Europe’s Rio Grande,” about the rising flood of migrants along the traditional route into Europe, across the Mediterranean to the Italian islands via traffickers operating leaky vessels from the Libyan coast. Even then this route was being supplanted big time by a new wave of migrants, many from war-torn Syria and Iraq, arriving on the Greek islands of the Eastern Mediterranean after making the shorter and less perilous sea journey from Turkey. What started as a trickle became a torrent within a few short weeks.
As with the USA there is constant migration into and out of Europe. Much of it is legal and regulated. But a lot isn’t, representing the efforts of desperate people, overwhelmingly poor, simply born in the wrong place, to gain access to the zone of prosperity, peace and stability represented by the First World.
There IS an avenue in, sanctioned by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which guarantees sanctuary to those fleeing political or social upheaval or a well-founded fear of persecution. For some, claiming asylum is relatively straightforward and easily established. For many others verifying the claim can be lengthy and complicated, with some left for years in residential limbo, their circumstances and opportunities limited. The convenient collective name for these is “Asylum Seekers.”
Others will simply never meet the criteria and, are dubbed, again for convenience, “Economic Migrants.” In practice this has become a pejorative term confined to people from the Third World trying to enter the First World but lacking the qualifying criteria for political asylum. Thus the undocumented crossing the Rio Grande into the USA, plus many of the Africans and Asians seeking to enter Europe by whatever route.
And there’s the rub. Economic Migrants ( which includes those refused political asylum) have no rights of residence and are liable to be deported at the individual whim of countries. In practice most have been allowed to stay up to now for one or other humanitarian reason. In some countries – like the USA – it’s having a child a citizen; in others it could be family circumstances, or hardship, or what could await at home, or even demographic factors producing a local demand for immigrants. Worldwide the system is a mess, with lines blurred and inconsistencies in plenty.
But here’s the other rub. Most of the current Asylum Seekers or Economic Migrants arriving at Europe’s borders are not just poor but of different racial, religious or cultural backgrounds to the Europeans. A process of adjustment is needed on both sides. The balance is a delicate one and, as the numbers of immigrants have risen, so also has opposition, particularly in Northern Europe, manifested by sporadic attacks on immigrants and the rise of political parties opposed to immigration. Think the “Know Nothings” of the 1840s transmuted to a European canvas. To their credit the mainstream political parties have held the line – until now.
Enter 2015. One million migrants should be easily manageable in an EU of 500 million ( Ireland, for example, absorbed 45,000 in five years at the turn of the Millennium). However, the million has arrived in four months, is adding to migrant numbers already here and has impacted disproportionately on several countries, with only token burden sharing, so that Germany, Sweden, Italy and Greece are struggling to cope. Moreover there are forecasts of three times as many preparing to come, with fears that Europe may close its doors adding to the migrant surge.
Refugee children trying to enter Europe have been drowning by the score in the Mediterranean for years with token sympathy but not much else. However, the striking images of a drowned toddler washed up on a Greek island in September provoked a qualitatively different reaction, coming hard on footage of an abandoned truck off an Austrian motorway containing seventy one suffocated migrants.
A wave of sympathy and desire to help surged through European public opinion, one which continued and intensified as the boats arrived on islands like Kos and Lesbos, disgorging tens of thousands, including many whole families, all claiming to be fleeing war and persecution, from the Middle East, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their destinations of preference were Germany and Sweden, both countries with a reputation for welcoming refugees (not wholly altruistic – Germany needs immigrants to bolster its numerically declining workforce) .
When Germany declared it would accept all refugees from Syria, and the responsible Government Minister suggested that 800,000 could arrive in 2015, the flows intensified and are continuing as I write, often exceeding 10,000 a day. Stunning daily TV coverage showed thousands on the march to Germany via Greece, through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria, bypassing, incidentally, EU border controls at entry.
As the transit countries tried to cope separately with the multitudes passing through, Hungary was the first to break ranks, building a fence to regulate entry and exclude migrants. As Germany filled up, with officials struggling to manage the flow, bottlenecks built up elsewhere with border controls reintroduced within the theoretically borderless Schengen zone . Sweden faces 190,000 new arrivals this year, in a country of under ten million. The latest arrivals are being housed in tents as winter beckons.
Public sympathy for the migrants, while still considerable, has begun to ebb, amid suspicions that a large percentage are economic migrants rather than refugees and fears that unregulated entry may have allowed some terrorists in. With no end in sight there is also growing public concern at how to absorb and cater for possible future flows on top of coping with those already arrived. Attempts to agree burden sharing among European countries have met with very limited success.
Ireland will take 4,000 over time, Britain 20,000. Several countries have refused to take any or to take any non-Christians. Collectively and nationally Europe is in disarray, with friction developing between neighbours. The European Union is nonplussed on the issue of what to do, with no consensus in sight beyond suggestions that that those found to be economic migrants be rapidly deported.
And still they come. I wrote last June that, in the age of the smart phone and the internet, the world’s poor and less privileged were not going to remain spectators at the feast, particularly those just outside the banqueting hall. They want in. This is now happening. 2016 promises to be interesting.