The escalating refugee crisis presents European leaders with enormous challenges and threatens the future of the European Union itself.
For some leaders, the generous provision of asylum has offered the chance to rehabilitate their national legacy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew comparisons with her predecessor Adolf Hitler earlier in the year for her draconian stance during bail-out negotiations with the newborn Syriza government of Greece. Throwing open Germany’s doors to up to a million Syrian refugees did much to soften her image.
Other countries seem to be suffering from political amnesia. The right-wing government in Hungary, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has hastily constructed a razor-wire along its border with Serbia and pledged to ‘stop the inflow of illegal migrants over our green borders’.
Thousands of refugees who sought to migrate to Austria and Germany via Hungary have been abruptly halted by this new iron curtain. Yet, in 1956, a quarter of a million Hungarian refugees ran for their lives across the very same Austrian border, fleeing soviet tanks intent on quashing the revolution.
As former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Kardicz awaits the verdict on his trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal at the Hague for his part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys, Serbian minister Aleksander Vulin complained to the BBC on Thursday morning about Hungary’s ‘inhumane’ behaviour. “We will not exercise force on these people,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “I am ashamed for Hungary.”
But the history of nations is just one of many political undercurrents as Europe’s governments scramble to deal with a mass exodus unprecedented since the Second World War.
Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world, with half of the pre-war population of 23 million displaced and 4.27 million expected to flee the country by the end of this year. Regionally, Turkey has borne the heaviest burden, hosting nearly two million, while per capita, Lebanon tops the tables with 1 in 5 residents being a Syrian refugee; in Jordan (already home to two million Palestinian refugees) that figure is 1 in 13 and Egypt has agreed to accept 132,000.
Western countries, however, and Germany and Sweden in particular, remain the destination of choice for up to two million Syrian refugees. It is only right that the West bears some moral responsibility for their plight since its interference — both militarily and politically — in the Syrian crisis created more problems than it solved, producing the security vacuum and instability in which groups like Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have flourished.
Merkel’s generous refugee policy backfired when it produced a surge in German-bound migration with 20,000 refugees arriving week before last. A vigorous backlash ensued, both in parliament and on the streets, as Germans protested the cost to their treasury and the failure of fellow European Union (EU) countries to share the burden. The chancellor abruptly waived EU Asylum policy rules to install border controls designed to stem the “flood” as the Conservative media across Europe likes to frame it. In one weekend, the Schengen agreement — which had seen 20 years of a Europe with no border controls and a joint asylum policy — was torn up, and Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech republic and Poland followed suit.
Merkel’s dilemma mirrors what is being faced by the whole of Europe: How to deal with a humanitarian crisis within national political and economic constraints while having regard for emotional imperatives emerging at grassroots level from both the left and right wings.
Syrian refugees don’t fit the template, which has left Europe largely indifferent to the humanitarian aspect of migration in the past; they are mostly well-educated (one third have completed a higher education course), well-dressed families, from a mixture of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Sweden, with an ageing population and shortage of key workers, expects to have offered asylum to 160,000 Syrians by the end of this year, providing accommodation, state benefits and language lessons upon arrival.
Europeans have been deeply moved by tragic images of drowned babies who look just like their babies; by images of young families trying to board the train for Austria, in possession of valid tickets, but being shoved and beaten back by Hungarian policemen. There is a huge amount of grassroots support for Syrian refugees and last weekend saw tens of thousands taking to the streets to proclaim ‘Refugees are Welcome’ across Europe’s capital cities. But there are fanatical racists and xenophobes too who — while in the minority — have rioted in Germany, Greece and Austria and taken to social media to air their poisonous hatred.
All across Europe, political positions are being polarised by the refugee crisis that threatens to rip it apart. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan for mandatory quotas of refugees for each country was rejected at an emergency meeting on Monday. Germany and Austria, both net contributors to the EU budget, have now threatened sanctions against countries that refuse to take their share.
While UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussain praised the British public’s empathy despite “long-standing xenophobia” from the press and some politicians, Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear that Britain (which has an ‘opt-out’ on asylum) would only accept 4,000 Syrian refugees a year — precisely the number arriving on the beaches of Lesbos, a Greek island, every day.
Meanwhile, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, made his first post-victory appearance at the ‘Refugees are Welcome’ march in Central London last Saturday.
As a former refugee myself, I am deeply grateful to my adopted country, Britain, for offering me citizenship; but I can assure readers that the most ardent desire of those fleeing persecution in their homeland is that they might one day return. Let us hope that history will be kinder to the Syrian diaspora than it has been, so far, to us Palestinians.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@abdelbariatwan.