EDITION: June - August 2016

The European Refugee Crisis

By Jerry Brownstein
Europe is experiencing the most significant influx of immigrants and refugees in its history. Huge numbers of people are fleeing from the terror and destruction of civil wars in the Middle East and Africa... leaving behind the only lives that they have ever known... facing countless dangers at every turn... all for the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. Well over a million of these desperate people made their way to Europe during 2015 – that’s a staggering 500% more than the year before. The scale of the crisis continues this year with over 140,000 arriving in just the first two months of 2016. The vast majority (more than 80%) of these people were fleeing the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition there were refugees from Eritrea, Pakistan, Morocco, Iran and Somalia – countries where poverty, human rights abuses and deteriorating security make daily life a living hell.
The response of the various countries in Europe to this humanitarian crisis has been inconsistent. The most positive reaction came from Germany where the government declared that their borders were open to all legitimate asylum seekers. This extraordinarily generous offer was quickly responded to, as refugees surged into Greece and then made their way north to the German border. The result was that about a million refugees entered Germany in 2015. However, it soon became apparent that the German government, despite its good intentions, had badly miscalculated the situation. Apparently, they felt that once the refugees were in Europe the EU would agree on a humanitarian plan to distribute them to various countries... but this was not to be. Even a modest proposal to relocate 120,000 of the migrants across the continent over the next two years has been rejected by Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Some countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway have taken in a reasonable number of these people relative to the size of their countries, but not nearly enough to relieve the pressure on Germany.

The route that these desperate refugees have taken in their quest for freedom has been predominantly through Turkey, and thence by boat to Greece. It is a perilous journey that is run by unscrupulous human smugglers who take these poor people’s money and then put them on overcrowded boats that often sink. The ones who were lucky enough to reach Greece had to make their way north through the Balkan states that did not welcome their presence, and harassed them at every turn. Their trek to Germany then continued through Hungary and Austria – EU countries that were not happy to have them within their borders. Those who survived this long and harrowing journey had finally made it to Germany... their promised land... but that promise has not been quite what they expected.
At first it seemed that the German people would heroically rise to the occasion and write a stirring chapter in the history of humanity. Refugees were greeted at the train stations and border crossings with flowers, and thousands of Germans volunteered to help get them settled. In fact, there are still thousands of selfless Germans working every day to take care of these people... but there is also a darker side to the situation. Without the expected help from the rest of the EU, it soon became clear that Germany was not at all prepared to handle such a large number of asylum seekers. While some were peacefully settled, others remained all winter in makeshift shelters. Still others were moved into towns and villages that were not equipped to deal with this influx of new people – particularly people whose background and customs were so different from their own. Resentments and conflicts inevitably began to spring up.

This came to a head on New Year’s eve when hundreds of German women were sexually assaulted by groups of young Muslim men during a crowded celebration in Cologne. It appears that most of those young men were from North Africa, and not Syria, but it still highlighted the problems inherent in trying to integrate so many people who come from such a foreign culture. The stark differences in attitudes toward women are certainly the most obvious. Most Muslim men are shocked to see women in skimpy clothes drinking alcohol and kissing in public. They come from a society where women are repressed and treated as less than equals. If these men are to co-exist peacefully in the West then it is imperative that they be taught to adapt to our way of life – particularly the freedom of European women. Programs have been started to accomplish this, but it will take time to change their engrained beliefs, and in the meantime the resentments and frictions continue to grow.
Despite the good-natured efforts of so many ordinary Germans to help these people, there has been a severe backlash by the darker elements of German society. Since January there have been over 1,500 incidents of violent attacks on migrants, and many of the buildings where they are housed have been set on fire. The far right parties have stoked the basest xenophobic instincts of their followers, and even many well-meaning people are groping for answers as to how to deal with this overwhelming situation. A similar rise of the extreme right wing political parties has occurred in other European countries as well.

The German government has finally realized that they have reached their limits, and have been negotiating ways to stem the tide of future refugees. Several months ago the Balkan states and Austria closed their borders so that the refugees could no longer pass through into Germany. This has caused of thousands of immigrants to be stuck in camps on the Greek border and on Greek islands, because they are not allowed to advance northward. Recently an agreement has been reached with the Turkish government to send some of these migrants – the ones who are not true asylum seekers – back to Turkey. It is a complex agreement, but basically the EU is giving Turkey about six billion euros to help take care of the refugees within their borders. They are also giving Turkey other political and economic benefits that they would otherwise not be entitled to. For every immigrant that is returned to Turkey the EU will accept one valid refugee from the camps in Turkey... but only up to a limited total of 72,000. In addition, the struggling Greek economy – which is unable to properly take care of the thousands of refugees who are stuck within their borders – will be receiving financial aid for this purpose.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who crafted this proposal as part of the efforts to salvage her open-door policy back home, conceded that there were still many hurdles. “I don’t have any illusions that what we have agreed today won’t also come with big setbacks,” Ms. Merkel said. “We have before us an enormous logistical undertaking.” Indeed, these are only stop-gap measures that postpone, but do not solve the problems. Experts say that cutting off the route from Greece northward into Germany will only force the tide of migrants to find other ways to come into Europe. Clearly this is not a simple situation. On one hand we have the refugees – the vast majority of whom are good people who only want what all of us desire – a life of peace and happiness for themselves and their families. They have risked their lives for this opportunity, and the only proper humanitarian response is to reach out and help them – as many people have done. On the other hand, integrating such a massive number of people from a radically different culture is a daunting challenge. Is Europe up to this challenge? Can we overcome the forces of fear and xenophobia? Time will tell... •