FPI Bulletin: Mideast Refugee Crisis Continues to Overwhelm Europe | Foreign Policy Initiative

October 30, 2015

October 30, 2015

At an emergency meeting this past Sunday, eleven European Union (EU) and Balkan leaders quarreled over how to handle the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees streaming into Europe each week. They ultimately agreed to a 17-point action plan, including the provision of additional shelters for transient persons and the deployment of additional EU law enforcement personnel to the Balkans, all in order to ensure the “gradual, controlled and orderly movement of persons” through currently inundated migration routes. Yet the efforts prescribed by the action plan are no match for the scale of the crisis. Like previous European initiatives, the action plan provides no answers to the fundamental questions of how stop the surge of migration and resettle the 700,000 migrants who have entered Europe illegally this year alone, about half of them from Syria.

Record Flows of Illegal Migration

More than 9,000 migrants arrived in Greece every day last week – the highest rate this year. Overall, illegal arrivals in Europe from the Middle East and North Africa have risen from 67,660 in 2012, to 93,100 in 2013, 274,335 in 2014, and more than 700,000 this year. Large numbers are coming from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Syria. However, the roughly 400,000 Syrians who have arrived this year represent only a fraction of the 4 million refugees driven out the country by its brutal civil war. In addition, nearly 8 million Syrians have been displaced internally and may seek to emigrate. All together, more than half of the country’s pre-war population has fled from its home.

The flood of illegal migration has created chaos in central Europe as well as in countries that border the Mediterranean. After arriving in Greece, hundreds of thousands of migrants have trekked through the Balkans on their way to their ultimate destinations in Germany or Austria. Haphazard responses by some countries in the region have had perilous effects on others. After Hungary closed its border with Croatia, 83,000 migrants streamed into Slovenia, seeking an alternate route to Austria. A nation of 2 million the size of New Jersey, Slovenia was unprepared for the sudden influx.

Migrants and Refugees

Migrants are those who relocate to a new country. Refugees, according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, are those who have fled their homes "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." In addition, the 1951 Convention forbids the expulsion of those who claim to be refugees, a principle known by its French name, non-refoulement. Knowing they won’t be expelled, Syrians risk their lives to cross Europe’s borders in rickety boats and through holes in barbed-wire border fences. Unsurprisingly, many others feign Syrian identity in hopes of beginning a new life in Europe. To expose impostors, immigration officials may ask migrants to pick out Syrian banknotes from a pile of bills, or to name their alleged home country’s most popular brand of cigarette. Those who seek a higher quality of living rather than a refuge from persecution are often described as economic migrants.

When a potential refugee arrives in Europe, he or she must apply for asylum. Since the process is lengthy, numbers of asylum applications trail behind those of illegal migrant arrivals – but the trend is nonetheless staggering. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that cumulative Syrian asylum applications rose from 30,515 in 2012 to 84,209 in 2013 and 222,156 in 2014. As of late September 2015, the cumulative total stood at 512,909 applications. There have been a record number of applications in the past three months, with 51,313 new applicants in July, 76,111 in August, and 68,337 in September.  

Receiving Asylum Seekers

Germany and its neighbors have struggled to provide temporary care and accommodation for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals who remain in a state of limbo while their asylum applications are being processed. The social and economic cost of integrating these migrants has led to mounting frustration while aggravating anti-Muslim prejudice.

The first stop for asylum seekers is a reception center, where they file their applications and receive temporary identification documents that give them access to public assistance. Reuters reported on the situation at one center in Berlin, where hundreds of new arrivals wait for days or weeks before they can register. Some sleep outside in the cold. Fights break out over the fruit distributed by volunteers. German immigration authorities say they now require about five months to process asylum applications, down from seven months last year. Once registered, applicants are distributed across Germany according to a formula based on the population and tax revenue of Germany’s sixteen states. The authorities also must secure winter-proof shelter, provide urgent health treatment, and distribute sufficient funds to support those who arrive destitute after an over-land journey of thousands of miles. Another concern regarding immigration is its relationship to criminal activity and the potential for Islamic terrorism. Organized crime in Eastern and Southern Europe has surged as refugees seek to be smuggled and settled, and even before the latest wave of migration from Syria, Europeans were concerned about the relationship between immigration and local crime. There is also the possibility of terrorists posing as refugees and the potential for radicalization and recruitment of desperate asylum seekers by jihadists already in Europe. German security officials have warned of this latter threat, which could not necessarily be stopped even by stricter security checks on incoming refugees.

Finally, anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiments motivate local and even in some cases national resistance to accepting those fleeing Syria. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stated, “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.” Indeed, Hungary, Slovakia, and Cyprus have expressed a preference for Christian refugees in order not to endanger Europe’s values. Lutz Bachmann, founder of the German group PEGIDA – the Germany acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” – has said, “The problem for us is this parallel society, that they don’t accept and respect German law. They say they are living for Sharia law.” Anti-refugee, anti-Islam demonstrations—in some cases with as many as 20,000 people—have taken place in Germany, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and even Finland, showing resistance from more than just the margins of European society.

The EU Struggles to Respond

Aspirations for a unified, comprehensive response to the refugee crisis have given way to token measures and apathy because Germany is bearing so much of the collective burden. In early September, Germany made the dramatic statement that it could accept 500,000 asylum seekers a year for several years – although internal government estimates suggest that 1.5 million refugees may arrive in Germany by the end of this year alone. 

In contrast, the main results of a series of European summits have been the 17-point action plan and a  September 22 agreement to redistribute proportionately 120,000 migrants from Italy, Greece, and Hungary to other EU member states. The measure passed with a majority, although Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania voted against the quotas, Finland abstained, and the UK exercised its option not to participate (but pledged to take 20,000 Syrians on its own). EU member states have also so far mobilized over €4.2 billion ($4.76 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees still in the Mideast, with additional negotiations ongoing to provide at least €3 billion ($3.4 billion) to Turkey in exchange for improving the circumstances of refugees there, which may discourage onward travel to Europe.

What remains elusive is any plausible idea of how to stop the tide of illegal migration from the Middle East and North Africa, or the unpredictable flows of asylum seekers across central Europe once they cross into the European Union. Even more distant is any consensus of how to employ either diplomacy, force, or the two in concert in order to bring an end to the civil war in Syria that is the ultimate cause of the refugee crisis.