Thursday 22 February 2018

Refugee crisis on our doorstep will worsen before it gets better

A refugee child cries as crowds scramble aboard a train at the station in Beli Manastir, Croatia, yesterday
A refugee child cries as crowds scramble aboard a train at the station in Beli Manastir, Croatia, yesterday

Mary Fitzgerald

For years, the expression 'Fortress Europe' was used to describe both policies and sentiment that fed the notion that the EU should be stricter about who it allowed over its borders. In recent weeks, the expression has been rendered all too real in the images of a crush of refugees and migrants being beaten back on Europe's frontiers. The most dramatic scenes have been in Hungary, where authorities decided to seal its border with razor wire and lines of riot police. They used tear gas and water cannons to repel thousands pressed against the border fence. Hungary's right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban has been provocative when referring to what is now the world's biggest displacement of people since World War II, casting his opposition to the refugees in inflammatory anti-Muslim terms.

Faced with a gathering crisis which has shown it has a life of its own, the EU remains deeply divided over what its response should be. "There is no wall you would not climb, no sea you wouldn't cross if you are fleeing violence and terror. I believe we have a moral duty to offer them protection," the EU's migration commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos said this week after meeting with Hungarian officials.

"The majority of people arriving in Europe are Syrians. They are people in genuine need of our protection."

In recent days, however, the signs are of a further retrenchment as European nations once deemed more sympathetic to refugees change their approach. Germany is considering reversing the generous policies that have made it a favoured destination for those seeking a better life. A draft law issued by the German interior ministry outlines measures including the cutting of cash benefits and the penalising of those making false claims. Such steps are needed, the draft bill states, to cope with the massive stream of refugees into Germany, where over 800,000 asylum applications are expected this year in a country with a population of 81 million.

Croatia also hardened its stance just a day after it pledged to welcome asylum seekers. Announcing the closure of most roads crossing into Serbia until further notice, Croatian officials said they took the step after more than 11,000 people arrived in a 24-hour period and there were confrontations between some asylum seekers and local police near the Serbian border.

With tensions rising, European Council president Donald Tusk has called an emergency meeting for this Wednesday but there is little to indicate that the EU will be able to paper over the rancour between member states over what should be done and by whom.

EU interior ministers have failed to reach agreement on a plan proposed by the European Commission for a binding quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. The strongest opposition to such a plan has come from central and eastern European nations. As the bickering increases, Germany's interior minister Thomas de Maizière has proposed cutting EU subsidies to member states that refuse to take their share of refugees.

Most of the debate in Europe centres on how to tackle the symptoms and not the causes of this humanitarian crisis. The world is experiencing a level of human displacement unseen since the 1940s. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 51.2 million people had been uprooted from their homes in 2013 - six million more than the year before.

In June, the refugee agency said the number had risen to 59.5 million in 2014. The root cause of this global refugee crisis is the wars roiling Syria, Iraq and Libya - particularly Syria which has seen millions of its people driven from their homes after four years of fighting and the emergence of Isil.

Most Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan but a growing number now seek sanctuary further afield. Given these conflicts are raging to Europe's south and east, the exodus to the continent is not going to slow anytime soon.

The only real way to address the bulk of the refugee crisis is to solve the war in Syria, but there's no end to that bloody conflict in sight and Western powers have no intention of intervening against the Assad regime to help tip the balance. The refugee crisis on Europe's doorstep is going to continue and worsen before it gets better.

Irish Independent

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