November 01, 2015

Refugee Crisis: Incoherent European Response

Yohannan Chemarapally

WITH the exodus of refugees to European shores showing no signs of receding, the European Union (EU) is facing a crisis that could threaten its very survival. Schengen visa rules that allow passport free travel in EU countries have been suspended. Border controls have been re-established and fences have reappeared on the continent for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Europe so far has responded woefully to the refugee crisis, the biggest since Second World War. European authorities were no doubt caught by surprise by the sheer scale of the migration. But they should have read the writing on the wall. The refugee flow started accelerating after the regime change the West imposed on Libya in 2012. Under Muammar Gaddafi, the number of economic migrants illegally crossing into Europe, due to effective policing, was very limited. After the Libyan State collapsed, the flood gates were opened. Thousands of migrants have died on the high seas in the last couple of years while making the hazardous journey from the Libyan coast to Italy. CRISIS COMPOUNDED BY US INSTIGATED WAR IN SYRIA The refugee crisis was further compounded by the American instigated war in Syria. At the start of the war, four and a half years ago, America's allies in the region like Turkey and Jordan, were virtually encouraging Syrians to cross over. Refugee camps were kept ready to receive them. The whole idea was to show to the world that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in Syria due to the policies of the Syrian government giving the West the pretext to intervene militarily. The so-called Right to Protect (R2P) civilians has been used by the West for regime change in many countries. Things however did not go according to the script envisaged by the West and its regional allies in Syria. With the war dragging on, the refugee crisis became unmanageable for the West. Half of Syria's population have been turned into refugees and four million of them have left the country, most of them headed towards Turkey. It should be remembered that Syria till 2011 was a politically stable country. This correspondent, a frequent visitor to Syria in the last decade, could traverse the length and breadth of a country that was completely peaceful. In 2010, nine million tourists visited the country. Then the West, flush with their triumph in Libya, decided to do regime change in Syria. The results have been catastrophic for the Syrian people and those in the region. Now western European countries, allies of the US, are also facing the consequences of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN has reported that wars and insurrections have made 14 million people refugees in North Africa and West Asia this year alone. An additional 15 million people have been displaced in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to their geographic proximity with Turkey, East European countries have now become the preferred route for refugees, the majority of whom are from war ravaged Syria. Italy and Greece had borne the initial brunt of the refugee tide. Hungary, a EU member has sealed off its borders with Serbia and Croatia, using concertina wire fencing. This happened in the second week of September after thousands of refugees had used Hungarian territory to move on to Austria and Germany. The German government's relatively more tolerant attitude towards the refugees coupled with its strong economy had made the country a magnet for the refugees. Many of the refugees also have a preference for Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, which have a tradition of accepting refugees from war ravaged countries. The German position towards the refugees also seems to be hardening in recent weeks. The German parliament is now considering new laws that will make it easier for asylum seekers to be deported back to their own countries. The laws if passed will reduce incentives like cash payments for new refugees. Manfred Schmidt, the president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, resigned in the second week of September. Many Germans blame him for triggering the refugee influx into the Balkans. He had tweeted a post that suggested that all Syrian refugees were eligible for asylum in Germany. The other big European states like France and the UK have not been as welcoming as Germany. These two countries along with the United States have only agreed to take a token number of refugees. The right wing government in Hungary had announced in the second week of September that the refugees and migrants who try to cross its borders would be sent to jail and repatriated. In the second week of September, Hungarian police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse desperate refugees trying to cross over. One man who managed to slip through the razor fence was arrested and promptly deported. That left Serbia, an applicant for EU membership, in a bind. Serbia had become a gateway for the refugees flooding into Eastern Europe. The tens of thousands of people, many of them women and children, then decided to use a more roundabout route through neighbouring Croatia to reach the German borders. The Croatian government initially allowed free passage for 48 hours but then abruptly decided to seal its borders saying that it was unable to cope with the huge influx. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic had earlier criticised Hungary's attitude, saying that the refugees do not want to stay in either Croatia or Hungary. He said that Hungary should have allowed them free passage to their final destinations. Thousands of refugees, their numbers increasing by the day, are now stranded in Serbia. The Serbian government has been very accommodative and understanding so far. However its limited resources are being stretched. The Serbian government has protested “in the strongest terms possible” at Hungary's brutal treatment of the refugees. Serbian officials said that Hungary was using their country like a concentration camp. Serbia with a population of 7 million welcomed 120,000 refugees. Many of them were unable to make the onward journey after Hungary and later on Croatia, sealed their respective borders. The Serbian economy is not doing all that well. There is a 20 percent unemployment rate. Hungary wants Serbia to host the refugees indefinitely. The Serbians say that they cannot force the refugees to stay against their will. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, while condemning Hungary's “brutal behaviour” called on EU member states to behave in accordance “with European values”. David Milliband, the chief of the International Rescue Mission said that Hungary's behaviour revealed the “dark side of the European character”. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein has characterised Hungarian actions as being motivated by “xenophobic and anti Muslim views”. The UN Refugee agency said that it was “shocked and saddened to see Syrian refugees who have already suffered so much being treated this way” by the Hungarian government. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has said that the refugee issue is not a problem to be resolved by the EU as it was a problem created by Germany. German leaders have been saying that refugee problem should be addressed collectively by all EU member States and that all the European States have a “shared responsibility”. The issue is now threatening to go out of hand and is threatening the very concept of European unity. The leaders of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, known as the Visegard countries, met in the first week of September to discuss the refugee crisis. They unanimously rejected the German supported EU proposal that the refugees and immigrants should be evenly distributed among all EU member countries. APPEALS FALL ON DEAF EARS European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, had proposed a 120,000 refugee burden sharing plan. The numbers to be distributed among countries would depend on their population, GDP and other factors. Speaking to the European parliament in the second week of September, he reminded the governments of the region that “Europe is a continent where almost everybody has been a refugee”. But his appeals fell on deaf ears. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has stated that his country would not like to take in any refugees. Senior Slovakian officials have explicitly stated that Muslims would not be allowed in as they would not be able to integrate into their society. It is another matter that very few of the refugees want to stay on in these countries, given the hostile reception they are getting. The Catholic Church in these countries, despite Pope Francis's plea to Christian parishes to give shelter to refugees, has sided with their governments. A Catholic Bishop in Hungary, Lazlo Kiss-Rigo, said that the mass of hungry and destitute people who passed through Hungary were not refugees. “This is an invasion. They come over with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar'. They want to take over”, he said. The Czech Cardinal, Dominic Duka, warned against “enemies” being allowed to cross the border. Stories have appeared in the local media, that terrorists intent on doing harm, have infiltrated the ranks of the refugees. There are reports that EU ministers during their recent meeting discussed plans for setting up refugee camps in Italy and Greece to hold undocumented refugees, the ministers, according to the reports, also discussed plans to set up camps on the African continent to house refugees to prevent them from coming to Europe. The refugee tide meanwhile shows no signs of ebbing. In the third week of September, there were reports of another boat full of refugees sinking in the Aegean Sea. Another body, this time of a four year girl was washed ashore on a beach in western Turkey. Hundreds of refugees are now stranded in Slovenia. They had made their way to the former Yugoslav Republic through Croatia after Hungary denied them direct passage to Austria.