European Migration CrisisSeptember 25, 2015 in European Union
Since the beginning of the year, Europe stood witness to ever-augmenting migratory flows. These immigrants seek to reach Europe in an effort to get away from the war and instability that plagues their home-countries. The attempts to reach the European borders were underlined by ever-increasing fatalities of immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. In the beginning of the year, these flows mainly used Libya to gain access to Italy through the Mediterranean, however, during the second quarter of 2015 the flows shifted their focus towards Greece since the passage to Europe through Turkey and Greece was deemed safer. Europe’s response to this crisis was slow and, in most cases, inadequate. The first attempt for the implementation of a quotas plan that would distribute the immigrants to the European countries was met with strong opposition from many European countries that deemed the plan as unfair. In the past months the only plan that found the European states in agreement was the provision of financial aid to the countries that carry the main burden of the problem to help handle the flows. While Europe stood frozen and unable to agree on the proper way to handle the crisis, the immigrants continued entering EU through Greece and Italy, and from there traveling central and north European countries.
Many countries chose to handle the problem individually, and in a mostly unsuccessful way. Greece and Italy, already burdened with the responsibility to save thousands of immigrants daily from half-sank dinghies at their sea borders, had to create, in a limited timeframe, the necessary infrastructure to identify these individuals, and divide them between refugees that have a legitimate claim to asylum and to economic immigrants that need to be returned to their home-countries. That proved to be challenging both for Greece and Italy, with the first facing at the same time an economic and political crisis that did not allow for an effective implementation of policies that would help alleviate the crisis. Hungary chose to handle the crisis in an unsuccessful, and for many unethical, way by building in a matter of weeks a fence along its Balkan frontiers and using the army to ensure that no one will pass this fence. This measure was deemed unethical since it violates the EU’s fundamental principles that oblige the member-states to provide asylum to anyone that has legitimate reasons to flee his home country because his life is in danger. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban achieved gaining the public’s support of his strategy through a series of campaigns, amplified by friendly media, that projected the immigrants as an imminent threat for the Hungarians. After the fence went up, and plans for its extension were announced, riot police used gas and water cannon on stone-throwing immigrants. At the same time, it was an unsuccessful measure since it has been proven in the past that fences do not stop these flows, they simply redirect them to seek other routes. That resulted in the shift of the migratory flows towards Croatia in an to attempt reach their destination countries. Under the burden, Croatia reacted in a similar, rather instinctive, way by closing seven of its eight road border crossings with Serbia following the ever-increasing influx of immigrants that redirected their routes after Hungary fenced off its borders and closed its borders with Serbia. Additionally, Czech Republic was severely criticised after it used the police to remove the immigrants from the trains headed to Germany, and started detaining and numbering immigrants using permanent markers to write registration numbers on the wrists and arms of immigrants. Even Germany, that announced during the last week of August the temporary suspension of the Dublin Agreements stating that it would accept all Syrian asylum-seekers, decided, barely eight days later, to close its borders with Austria leaving thousands of immigrants stranded in Austria’s train stations. The continuation of these practises will not solve the problem, contrary, they will only succeed in trapping these immigrants to Greece, creating a situation which could take unthinkable dimensions.
With a plethora of similar measures being implemented across Europe many started discussing the suspension of Schengen Agreement, one of the pillars upon which European Union is based on and promotes the freedom of movement between the member states. This is not the first time the Schengen Agreement seems to be under threat. In 2011, fearing an influx of North African refugees, Italy and France pushed for a review of the agreement. Earlier this year the Dutch Prime Minister threatened Greece with expulsion if it allowed immigrants free passage to the rest of Europe. Neither eventuality came to pass. What Germany did by temporarily closing its borders with Austria is not a direct violation of the agreement, since Schengen allows countries to briefly reinstate border controls for reasons of national security. However, if these controls become a way to handle the influx of immigrants then they risk reversing decades of European integration.
On September 22 and 23, Europe made another attempt to handle the immigration crisis, since as the time passes and the problem persists, it seems that the European leaders realise that it is a situation that has to be faced collectively. Not only within the borders of the EU, but also by collaborating with other countries that are affected by this problem such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The European states agreed by a strong majority on a mandatory plan to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers across the continent over the next to years. Four governments – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania- opposed the proposal, and Finland abstained. This plan, however, shares the burden of only a fraction of the total number of asylum seekers who have come to Europe during this year, a total that already surpasses 500,000. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that his government will not honour the ministerial decision even of it risks a lawsuit by the European Commission. Additionally, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said after the vote that this plan will encourage more immigration and that Europe’s culture will be irrevocably diluted by allowing more Muslims to settle.
Under the plan agreed by the EU’s Foreign Ministers, some 66,000 asylum seekers will be relocated from Italy and Greece to other EU member states in coming months (15,600 from Italy and 50,400 from Greece). That leaves around 54,000 people who could be relocated from other countries if they experience a sudden influx of migrants and appeal for help. After one year, Italy and Greece will be reallocated the remainder of this reserve, meaning that they will be able to send additional number of asylum seekers elsewhere in the EU. From the plan are excluded only the three countries who have a partial opt-out from EU immigration rules, the UK, Ireland and Denmark. Despite UK being officially excluded by the quotas system, it has been repeatedly under pressure, mainly from France and Germany, to share the burden and accept immigrants. The British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that UK will commit another 100 million pounds to supporting refugees camps bordering Syria and has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees from these camps over the next five years. Ireland stated that it will participate in the quotas plan despite its opt-out. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, which are not in the EU are also taking part. To assuage concerns from some Central and Eastern European member states, EU governments may seek a one-year delay for accepting up to 30 percent of the asylum seekers they are allocated. That could be further extended by a second year if other member states and the European Commission agree.
The quotas were determined largely by the size of each country’s population and its GDP. Also taken into account was the country’s unemployment rate and its number of spontaneous asylum applications and resettled refugees per one million inhabitants in the last five years. That has as a result that 60 percent of asylum-seekers be moved to just three countries, Germany, France and Spain. However, the plan does not account for the migrants who will continue to flood into Europe this fall. At the same time, there is a provision for the creation of ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy by the end of November where EU experts can quickly register and identify people for refugee protections. The quotas plan will be paired by a simultaneous effort to provide more help to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the region in the hopes of at least dissuading some people who are fleeing conflicts and poverty to stay in the Middle East. EU will allocate one billion euros to the region in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program. At the same time, the European leaders agreed during their meeting on September 23 to strengthen the management and the control of EU’s external borders, since it would be unfair to expect that Greece and Italy to handle on their own this huge influx of immigrants.
However, this agreement is nothing more than a temporary solution to the problem. To begin with, the decision to override the dissenter countries means the EU will be sending thousands of people to nations that do not wants them, raising questions about both the future of the 28-national bloc and the well-being of the asylum-seekers consigned to this countries. The acceptance and integration of the immigrants into the local communities is further disturbed when countries, such as Germany through its Chief of Intelligence Hans-Georg Maassen, circulate the view that the refugees could be recruited by radical Islamists already in the country to organise terrorist attacks. It is apparent that this kind of rhetoric does not facilitate their integration and acceptance to the local communities. Additionally, EU has not announced according to which criteria the refugees will be chosen to be allocated to each country, creating rumours that countries such as Germany that are in need of specialised workforce will accept mainly the refugees with high qualifications and distribute the ones with a limited educational and professional background to the other countries. Finally, while the majority of the European leaders seem to be satisfied with the agreement reached, they did not highlight that this plan deals with only a portion of the 500,000 immigrants currently in Europe and they did not acknowledge the fact that the biggest migratory flow has not as of yet commenced. Turkey currently hosts 2,5 million refugees, Lebanon around 1,5 million and Jordan some 700,000 refugees. It seems apparent that the allocation of one billion euros is a temporary solution and will not dissuade them from attempting to seek a better future in Europe. Nevertheless, the value of the agreement reached should not be undermined. It is the first organised and cohesive reaction of a Europe that proved during this crisis that its crisis management reflexes are extremely slow. However, it should not be considered as a viable solution to a problem that its route causes have not yet been addressed.