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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 43 New Delhi October 17, 2015

Influx of Refugees and Humanitarian Crisis in Europe

Monday 19 October 2015, by Sheetal Sharma

The ugly face of human tragedy was unfolded when the world saw shocking images of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian boy, Alyanc Kurdi. Alyan’s five-year-old brother Galip, and mother Rehan, aged 35, too met the same fate along with other twelve Syrian refugees as their boat capsized while attempting to reach the Greek Island of Kos. The pictures of the toddler went viral on the net, and appeared in the newspapers the world over. The pictures were distressing and caused outrage at the inaction of the global community to handle the refugee crisis.

Europe is facing an unprecedented and massive influx of exhausted and desperate refugees. It is a historic moment for Europe. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has not faced any such crisis in the past couple of decades. Although Europe has been one of the foremost options for the displaced people seeking refuge, this time the number of asylum-seekers has gone substantially high. UNHRC statistics indicate that by the end of 2014 there were 59.5 million persons who had been displaced because of war, conflict or persecution. Europe alone in the year 2014 received 626,000 asylum applications. However, this time by the end of July this year nearly 450,000 people have filed applications for asylum in Europe. In the first half of 2015, 185,000 people claimed asylum in Europe, almost 90 per cent more from the previous year. Hundreds of thousand migrants are entering Europe. Risking their lives in boats, by road or rail, people from the conflict ridden regions of Middle East, mainly Syria, North Africa and the Balkans are fleeing their homeland in search of safer option in Europe. The refugees seeking asylum in Europe are in pursuit of saving their lives, and escaping either war or poverty prevailing in their countries.

Since the last couple of months a majority of refugees are from Syria. These refugees are fleeing conflict-ridden Syria, which is facing the worst kind of civil war, massacre and power struggle between various factions, separatists, extremists, the ISIS and the government. The war in Syria began in 2011, and so far nearly 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and millions of civilians are facing persecution. As per the estimates, almost 95 per cent of the displaced people, that is, 4.5 million refugees from Syria have got refuge in Jordon, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. Although Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Government of Jordan refers to the Syrians as refugees. By the end of last year only the number of ‘Population of Concern’ stood at 672,930 in Jordan which includes refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced people, stateless persons, returned refugees and returned IDPs. The Government of Jordan has granted the Syrian refugees access to health and education services and have ensured their security despite its own weak economic and social structure. But there are reports that due to the domestic socio-economic and political conditions of these countries and lack of preparedness to accept refugees, and inability to accept beyond the numbers that they have already accepted, many of the refugee camps have now become over-crowded and undersupplied. Nevertheless, as compared to the response of the rich and wealthy Arab countries, their efforts to accommodate displaced people have been appreciated the world over.

The UNHRC’s ‘Global Trends Report: World at War’ had warned that the migrant crisis, or the percentage of displaced people due to war is going out of hand and will soon explode. And the warning turned out to be true. Approxi-mately 4.5 million people have been displaced due to war in Syria alone. Thousands of people everyday are putting their lives to risk and are making the difficult journey by rail, road or sea to reach Greece, Hungary, or Italy and then somehow from there move on to countries of north and west Europe, either Germany or Sweden or any place where they can live without the fear of death. But the journey itself is turning out to be a death trap. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHRC, nearly 4000 people, including children, women and old people, have died during the first half of this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Europe. Human-traffickers and smugglers are having a field day in the turmoil as they charge thousands of euros per individual to help them enter the European borders. The traffickers are adding to the woes of the already suffering people by extracting huge sums of money and cashing upon their vulnerability, need, desperation and help-lessness. Operating at various places either in tandem or as rival groups the smugglers are running a shadow economy and making millions out of the plight of the affected people.

Amid rising international pressure on the one hand and humanitarian calling after the growing number of deaths of refugees on the other, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, exhibited political courage and moral leadership. The German Chancellor pronounced the language of shared values and European ideals and said the continent as a whole had to deal with the problem. Merkel stated that “if Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed”. Thousands of asylum-seekers flowed towards Germany by road, rail, bus, on foot, chanting “Germany! Germany”. Europe is an economically prosperous and peaceful continent and attracts people who are seeking better and healthy life. When it becomes an issue of life and death in war-torn countries, such as Syria and some countries in North Africa, escaping to Europe becomes all the more obvious choice as Germany declared that it will take more than 800,000 people who wish to come and settle in Germany. In the first six months of 2015, Germany reportedly received over 200,000 applications for asylum. It was predicted in August that 800,000 people would arrive in the country as refugees or to pursue asylum by the end of the year, up from an estimate of 300,000 in January.

The scale of the challenge that Europe is facing is enormous, with the flow of refugees extremely difficult to manage and channel, let alone contain. The phenomenon seems to continue as long as instability and chaos will persist in the countries of origin of the displaced people, that is, Syria, Iraq and Libya. With rising number becoming difficult to manage, the institutional mechanism, shelters, borders, refugee camps, registration centres are finding it difficult to cope with the pressure. The Dublin regulation stipulates that asylum-seekers should be registered at their point of entry into the member-state of the EU, but the requirement was bypassed by the border states as the refugee rush grew. The transit countries like Serbia and Hungary erected barriers on their borders to stop the relentless flow of refugees and ban their entry into their country. These steps were taken to control the crisis but they were against the ideal of uninterrupted travel within the border-free Schengen Area in the European Union.

During the month of August a far-Right and neo-Nazi demonstration against a refugee camp turned violent in Germany, the German Chancellor was criticised by the media for her late and tepid response. But even when the other member-states were hesitant and reluctant to take in refugees, Merkel demonstrated the political courage and moral leadership that was indeed the need of the hour. The political leadership, moral courage, and responsibility that Germany has shown has been strikingly different. The Economist reported that “for too long Europe has closed its eyes to Syria’s foul and bloody civil war, and tried to keep the suffering multitudes out. Suddenly the continent’s gates have been pushed open by two political forces. One is moral conscience, belatedly wakened by the image of a drowned Syrian child on a Turkish beach. The other is the political courage of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who told her people to set aside their fear of immigrants and show compassion to the needy.”1 The scene in Germany is different from many of the member-states of the EU as the refugees are welcomed by the cheering Germans on reaching camps. Volunteers, women and children, were seen giving drinks, food and stuffed toys to the strained, exhausted, and tired-by-the-journey children, elders, and young men and women.

The humanitarian crisis is posing certain challenges to the European Union. The foremost and immediate one is of arranging for logistics for refugees, which includes shelter, food, health and education. As the refugee crisis grew out of proportion, the response of some of the governments within the European Union was a hesitation to open the borders. The President of Poland expressed his discontent and stated that the quota was being ‘imposed’ upon them. All the member-states of the EU, on the one hand, agreed that the human cost of the refugee crisis has been massive and all of them need to do more, but then there is an inherent fear of the long-term consequences of housing the refugees on the other. The refugees constitute of mainly the Muslim population. Europe as such is facing conflicts because of issues of different cultural practices and traditions followed by the Muslims, such as wearing of hijab/burqa in public places, taking only halal meat, avoiding pork, increasing the heights of minarets, and opening madrassas etc. The very idea of accepting even a couple of hundred refugees as determined by the quota sparked protest by Right-wing parties. Moreover a couple of years back all the big member-states of the EU had pronounced multiculturalism as failure. There is a fear of rise in the Muslim population and masses are gripped by Islamophobia. The common people are hesitant to the idea of welcoming refugees primarily belonging to other religious category. Some of the East European countries, such as Poland, Slovenia, and Serbia, have been openly vocal about acceptance of only ‘Christian refugees’. Further, the quota system proposed by the EU was also rejected by some of the member-states of Eastern Europe on the ground that bigger and developed member-states have better capacity to absorb refugees and they do not have resources for the rehabilitation of refugees. Another argument that reveals the discord between the member- states was that the Eastern member-states claimed that they do not suffer from the guilt of destroying the countries from where the refugees are coming, as they do not have any colonial past. So they do not feel that they have any moral obligation to house these people. Yet another fear that grips the people in Europe is that in open borders extremists masquerading as genuine refugees might enter. Given the borderless travel in the Schengen zone, the whole continent becomes vulnerable to security threats posed by extremists who plan to carry out attacks on the Western world and who can gain easy entry in this chaos. In the light of such a scenario a rise in the number of Muslims can lead to increase in the number of instances of friction between the natives and new settlers. It would be challenging to integrate the cultural ‘other’ into the mainstream European culture and everyday life. And when it is about integration of people who have gone through the trauma and experience of exodus it indeed becomes all the more challenging.

It is very difficult to wipe out the memory of displacement and the traumatic experience may result in violent behavioural dispositions in future. Both time and effort, and patience are necessary on the part of the host society and refugees to strike a balance between the two cultures and integrate refugees in the main-stream culture.

Apart from issues of intercultural conflict, there is a fear that the rising number of refugees will burden the already crumbling social security structure of the countries of the European Union. The extra burden on the social security system will add weight upon the local communities and taxpayers. The presence of legal economic migrants itself in a large number of cases is seen as a burden on the social security net that governments in Europe offer to their own citizens, and the entry of refugees will further strain the system. But social scientists claim that migrant populations if managed well, can lead to economic growth and innovation in the host country. The educated and skilled refugees will become part of the work force and indirectly pay back whatever, it is feared, they will take away from the system. In the case of the Syrian refugees, a large number of people are educated and skilled and these professionals will get absorbed into the workforce quickly. Europe is facing a demographic deficit, the population is aging and Europe needs labour or workers in all the categories of skill. Against the backdrop of this situation the fear appears unfounded.

The global community of late has come up with many proposals to rehabilitate the refugees, from proposing to establish ten separate cities, or to buy an island for them on the one hand there have been proposals to establish Special Economic Zones to provide employment to the refugees on the other. The action and moral responsibility on the part of Europe alone is not sufficient to address the issue. The global community too needs to come forward and extend as much support as possible to the Europeans in their effort to rehabilitate the refugees. A large number of international organisations and big multinational companies are coming forth with donations, job offers, logistic help and other services in the time of crisis. But such efforts need to increase in size and volume and must be co-ordinated and supported in order to become effective.

The European countries for a while seemed to have divided opinion. However, polarisation and disagreement are not new to the functional dynamics of the EU, but the EU has always emerged successful out of the situations that seem like an impasse. Although the member states initially rejected the quota and plan to share the burden, despite the vehement opposition of some of the East European member-states, the EU adopted the plan to relocate 1.2 lakh migrants.

The global action must also go beyond the immediate offers of temporary shelters or permanent residences, funding or charity. The world community needs to address the fundamental issues causing conflict and war in the region. The leaders must convey to the public that they need to rise to the demand of the occasion and exhibit the strength of human values. At this juncture the issue of cultural conflict is not discussed openly as it gets subsumed under the call of moral duty and responsibility. One can only hope that once the refugees settle economically and come to terms with normal everyday life, their integration and experience with European values and culture will be harmonious. So far the crisis has become more like a numbers game of how many are coming everyday. The international media is overwhelmed by reporting the numbers. But it is not important as to who came and from where. The real issue is: how to co-ordinate efforts to address the political turmoil in Syria and similar situation in the rest of the affected regions.

Dr Sheetal Sharma is an Assistant Professor, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: sheetal88@gmail.com