Europe’s Crisis of Conscience

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SEPTEMBER 11, 2015 originally published at the New Yorker

BY JENNY NORDBERG

A refugee is handed food upon arriving at the train station in Dortmund, Germany, on September 6th. The responses among European nations to the refugee crisis offer a picture of a continent in deep disagreement.

More than ten thousand children have died in the Syrian civil war, along with two hundred thousand adults. We are mostly protected from images of their deaths. But two thousand five hundred people are estimated to have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, and we see photos of them, including children, and begin to examine ourselves.

The uncomfortable moral dilemma for each citizen of a European nation is this: How much solidarity and humanitarian sentiment can we conjure for refugees who arrive at our borders, as opposed to those who are suffering far away?
In Europe, the responses to that question are very different, and they offer a picture of a continent in deep disagreement. In 2014, Sweden, Switzerland, and Denmark accepted, per capita, the most asylum applications in Europe, while Spain, Ireland, and Poland took in far fewer of those fleeing from war and persecution. This summer, the divide between those who accept refugees and those who do not has grown even wider. Police in Hungary sprayed refugees with tear gas, but refugees who make it to Germany—where up to ten thousand people have been estimated to arrive in a single day —are welcomed by volunteers carrying blankets and baby formula.

The horror stories of refugee flights gone wrong have tilted many Europeans toward a more active engagement in the refugee crisis. But the fact is that, for years now, most of Europe has done its best to stave off people from the global South, sometimes coming very close to the limits of international law. Anna Eva Radicetti, the head of the International Organization for Migration’s Policy and Programme Unit, pointed out that what is now seen as an “emergency” could have been prevented, or better managed, if policies recommended by migration experts as early as 2010, at the start of the Tunisian Revolution, had been implemented. The situation has just been made more acute this year by the procrastination and unease of European leaders.

A stark example of dysfunction can be found on the Greek islands, where volunteers and non-governmental organizations are struggling to assist boat refugees, who are living in what Amnesty International describes as “hellish conditions.” The large-scale management that is needed for these refugees has never existed in Greece—and this is Europe, which has some of the world’s most sophisticated military and rescue teams, whose expertise and manpower are dispatched around the world. The E.U. has sent emergency funds, but Greek authorities have resisted setting up proper reception facilities, fearing what politicians call a “pull factor”: creating arrival conditions that appear attractive to potential refugees, encouraging more people to risk the journey.

The refugees who have managed to set foot on European shores to apply for asylum have taken advantage of a basic human right, afforded to them by international law and by the U.N. Refugee Convention (which was created to help European refugees after the Second World War). But, for years now, the E.U. has tried to avoid granting prospective refugees that right by making it nearly impossible for them to enter any of its countries legally. Try, for example, being an Afghan who wants to apply for a visa, which is mandatory for any air travel to Europe. But armed guards usually will not even let you come near the row of European embassies in Kabul. The same goes for Syrians—to what embassy could they even apply?

Those who are desperate enough to leave Syria or Afghanistan are left with the option of hiring smugglers. The going rate from Syria to Sweden is between ten thousand and eighteen thousand dollars per person, depending on the route, according to smugglers to whom I’ve spoken in the suburbs of Stockholm. It’s far more expensive than a plane ticket, and far more dangerous. Hundreds pack into small boats, setting off from Turkey or Libya, hoping to be picked up by European coast guard vessels and dropped off in Greece or Italy. Boat operators charge Africans four hundred to seven hundred dollars to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, a friend who is involved in Mediterranean rescue operations of migrants told me this past summer. “It’s almost as though we are forcing them out to sea,” he said. “We won’t do anything to help you while you’re on land, but once you risk your life, we will try to get there before you drown.”

This week produced a new European Commission proposal for the “redistribution” of one hundred and sixty thousand refugees from Hungary, Greece, and Italy to other countries, as well as a mandatory quota system. For some countries, this would mean a doubling or tripling of current refugee numbers, which some seem highly unlikely to accept. The former Eastern Bloc countries have expressed the strongest objections to taking in refugees, and several have banded together to oppose Brussels. Slovakia, Cyprus, Poland, and the Czech Republic have announced, or implied, that they can only offer refuge to Christians.
Germany has issued the strongest calls for a new “burden-sharing” agreement, but at this point that would take a long time, both politically and legally, to implement. A new mandatory quota system would “probably need new institutions and possibly treaty,” Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, tweeted in response to the Commission’s proposal. And without significant changes to the E.U. system, a more formal sharing of refugees seems largely theoretical. As long as Europe keeps its internal borders mostly open, under the Schengen Agreement, a refugee accepted to, say, Romania, could simply get on a train and relocate to France or Germany.

One agreement that the E.U. could come to sooner is regarding who should count as a refugee and who should count as a migrant, since the latter may not qualify for the same legal protection. About sixty per cent of the people arriving in Europe are from Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea; they make up the three nationalities most likely to qualify for asylum. But there are also people who are trafficked, seek to reunite with family, or are driven by poverty and environmental degradation in African countries, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who for the most part are not eligible for asylum under existing laws. Angela Merkel has proposed creating a common “safe country” list, to expedite their return.

A more radical initiative, which is often brought up by refugee advocates and shot down by politicians, is to allow European embassies in the Middle East and North Africa to extend humanitarian visas. Another controversial idea, raised off and on during the past two decades by migration researchers, is to set up large processing centers for asylum claims to Europe in countries like Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. This would take some pressure off those countries, which already host four million refugees, as well as offer a safer route across the Mediterranean. It would also give the poorest and weakest people, such as the elderly and the disabled, a fairer opportunity for asylum.

Human-rights organizations have expressed concerns that processing centers outside Europe would not be able to guarantee proper handling of all refugee claims. Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, which is based in Brussels, says the idea has many pitfalls: “It’s a genuine question whether you can apply the E.U. standards to a third country, or if they can even take it on.” But given the current chaos, the E.U. may want to revisit such ideas. Collett believes there have been “conversations behind closed doors” on the issue, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has confirmed that the Commission is drafting policies that would create more legal channels to Europe.

But perhaps a refugee crisis largely stemming from wars in the Middle East should be considered more than a European problem. The “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, in 2011, which helped create the chaos that opened up the route through the central Mediterranean to Europe, had countries from Qatar to Norway lining up to take part in the bombings with the United States. Germany, now bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, notably abstained.

The American legal scholar Jill Goldenziel believes that the threat posed by human smuggling and large refugee movements goes beyond any solutions that Europe alone can invent. In a working paper recently presented at the American Society of International Law’s annual meeting, she proposed the creation of a new international law for a global geographic distribution of refugees and migrants in the event of a conflict or disaster, as well as safe zones in countries of war, based on the idea that most people would never, by choice, flee to the other side of the world.

Angela Merkel should invite her for tea.

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