United in diversity. EU’s motto.
If ever there were a line in a report to alarm European leaders, it might have been one buried in a 204-page document on the EU economy last November. It predicted that up to three million additional asylum seekers could enter the 28-nation bloc by the end of this year, according to the Washington Post.
If the influx should come to pass, it is about now when the surge will begin. It is springtime in Europe when the Mediterranean and Aegean storms abate and the seas become a tempting risk for those seeking a new and safe home. Already 110,000 have endured a winter crossing to Greece and Italy so far this year. That is 10 times the number for the corresponding period last year. Four hundred of them perished at sea.
Unlike 2015 when the EU had an open-door policy and more than one million asylum-seekers took advantage of it, newcomers will find a less welcoming reception and the Europeans in disarray about what to do about all these strangers suddenly in their midst.
The EU might like to claim unity, but now self-interest, local nationalism, the growing influence of right-wing parties and the very idea of enforced quotas where asylum-seekers should be relocated have driven several EU members to enact their own measures.
‘The EU’s ideal of free movement is collapsing under the weight of political reality’, said the Spectator in an editorial. ‘An inability to respond to this crisis is sending millions of voters to extremists, now on the march across the continent’.
Even the 2015 heroine for asylum-seekers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has suddenly had a rethink on her open-door embrace of them. In a move aimed at the restless electorate, she’s now warned the hundred of thousands of asylum-seekers who came to Germany last year that they are there only on a temporary basis and cannot stay long-term.
Scandinavia, which once prided itself on sheltering the oppressed, has become positively hostile to these outsiders from afar. Sweden says it intends to deport up to half of the 160,000 who arrived last year. They are deemed to be not refugees, but economic migrants. But it is hard to envisage the mass deportation of tens of thousands of men, women and children. Norway, a non-EU member, wants to deport hundreds of asylum-seekers who slipped in through the Arctic Circle border with Russia. Denmark, in a bid to deter newcomers, can now legally confiscate assets valued at more than $2000 except for wedding rings. They say this will help fund the cost of sheltering them.
Macedonia, the first country for refugees heading north along the Balkans corridor from Greece, has closed its border in order to filter the travellers. Afghans – 27% of the arrivals in Greece – have been told by Macedonia to return whence they came. Priority is given to those from Iraq and Syria. Austria is restricting entry to 580 people per day to try to choke the refugee flow. Slovenia and Croatia have followed suit.
Their moves have been branded as “plainly incompatible” with international law, according to Euronews. Some EU officials described it as tantamount to ‘giving the finger to the rest of Europe’, it added.
An EU scheme agreed last September to relocate 160,000 people among members under mandatory quotas has seen just 598 moved so far. Former communist states have said they don’t want any at all and have filed legal challenges.
EU and Turkish leaders are due to hold a summit in the next few days about what to do. Ideally, the EU would like Turkey to stop the flow of asylum-seekers across the narrow Aegean strait to Greek territory. Last year, 800,000 made that crossing. Brussels has given Ankara a handsome sum of euros – some call it a bribe – to help shelter the refugees in Turkey and encourage them to remain there. There are 2.6 million Syrians camped in Turkey, the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.
Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, says the summit will be a ‘turning point’. If the EU cannot agree on a joint strategy, Germany might impose its own border controls, according to a German newspaper report. Its solution is for the EU to take in a fixed annual quota of Syrians from Turkey – perhaps a quarter of a million – in return for curbing the flow of migrants into Europe.
Greece would certainly welcome such a deal. The EU has dusted off its old policy that refugees should be processed in the first member country where they land. It has given threadbare Greece until this month to improve living conditions in centres for asylum-seekers and provide more staff to process their applications. Otherwise it might lose valuable concessions. Greece ‘will not accept becoming Europe’s Lebanon, a warehouse of souls’, said the Greek Migration Minister, Yannis Mouzalas, referring to the huge number of Syrian refugees Lebanon has taken in since 2011.
It is a problem of displaced people on a scale not encountered in Europe since the end of World War Two. Post-war peace then meant that many of these European people could return to their homes or what was left of them and rebuild their lives. But the very idea of achieving anything remotely peaceful in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – where the overwhelming majority of today’s asylum-seekers are from – is highly unlikely.
How ironic it is that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, prompted by the plight of those displaced by WW2 in Europe, may prove the best protection for those outsiders who’ve descended on Europe because of wars 65 years later. It seems that once you are in Europe, you’re in. Unless drastic new measures are enforced, we can expect more EU members taking matters into their own hands.
The greater the EU diversity, the less the unity.
FOOTNOTE. If there is one group who would like to see more asylum seekers than ever, it is the predators who make money from misery. The EU police agency, Europol, estimated that people-smuggling gangs netted up to $9 billion last year. A report last month described them as ‘the fastest growing criminal market in Europe’. It warned that ‘this turnover is set to double or triple if the scale of the current migration crisis persists in the upcoming year’.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.