European leaders fail challenge of refugee influx

November 8, 2015

More than 85 people, including children, drowned or went missing near the Greek Islands Lesbos, Samos, Kalymnos and Rhodes between October 28 and 30.

As numbers, these deaths are added to the more than 3400 who have already died trying to flee to Europe so far this year. As human lives, these represent an incalculable loss and moral failure by European leaders.

The number of asylum seekers dying off the coast of Greek islands has sky-rocketed over the past few months. The mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, recently told a Greek radio station that local authorities on the island are struggling to find places to bury the dead.

Unprecedented influx

After the first nine months of the year, during which the number of asylum seekers entering Europe by sea exploded to 464,000, many hoped the number of refugees entering Europe would subside as the weather began to cool. In fact, the opposite has happened.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said almost 220,000 asylum seekers arrived in Europe last month alone — the vast majority arriving by boat in Greece and moving north-west to other European nations.

A UNHCR spokesperson said: “That makes it the highest total for any month to date and roughly the same as the entire total for 2014.”

Many more have been arriving in Europe by land. Germany alone is expecting to receive more than 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

This marks the biggest asylum seeker influx since World War II, and the UNHCR said it is set to continue next year, as its causes are continuing.

Images of thousands-strong groups of refugees marching through the Eastern European countryside are now common on the European news.

War-torn and destabilised Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Syria make up the four biggest nationalities of the asylum seekers arriving in recent months. Syrians account for 53% of the total.

This represents a staggering humanitarian emergency, but these numbers are just part of a much larger international displacement crisis.

According to the UNHCR, more than 60 million people are now refugees, internally displaced in their home country, or seeking asylum.

This is the largest number of refugees in human history — one in 122 of all people on Earth.

Syria's neighbours, with vastly weaker economies than major European powerhouses such as Germany, have taken the brunt of the refugees. Jordan houses 600,000 refugees, while Lebanon and Turkey have 1 million and 2 million respectively.

Europe's response

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras slammed the European Union's response to the current emergency.

“I feel ashamed as a member of the European leadership not only for Europe's inability to deal with this issue, but also for the level that the conversation is taking place,” Tsipras said.

Under European regulations, asylum seekers are supposed to remain in the country they initially enter, and it is solely that country's responsibility to process their asylum claims. With the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in countries like Greece and Italy, this regulation is proving unworkable.

European leaders have held a series of meetings over the past few months to find continent-wide solutions to the situation, with several agreements being reached. After much debate and resistance, leaders of EU member states came to an agreement in September to share 160,000 new refugees.

This scheme is finally getting underway, with 100 refugees recently being sent from Italy to France and Spain, and 30 from Greece to Luxembourg.

But many feel this is both too slow and involves inadequate numbers. It represents less than the monthly number of arrivals at the present rate.

At a summit of EU and Balkan states, countries in the main refugee route, agreed to some measures for providing more policing and shelter for 100,000 refugees.

The European Commission has also approved €2.4 billion in emergency aid to European countries such as Italy and Greece to subsidise rescue efforts over the next six years.

But with winter fast approaching in Europe, it is not just lives at sea that will need rescuing. Basic provisions, like blankets and shoes, will mean the difference between life and death for many refugees facing their first European winter.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who months ago was hailed as the compassionate “mother of outcasts”, has since equivocated and eventually reversed her support for an “open door” approach to refugees.

Germany is restricting access along its border with Austria to five processing points. It will build “transit zones” across its border with Austria, where asylum seekers will be processed.

Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, part of the governing coalition with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has criticised this latest move, calling the new border controls “detention centres”.

Asylum seekers from “safe countries”, such as countries in Eastern Europe, will stay in the new facilities and face “accelerated deportation”. Those coming from places like Syria and Iraq could get temporary housing within Germany while their claims are processed.

Merkel's new stance includes plans for a two-year suspension of one of Germany's most progressive asylum seeker policies, only recently implemented on August 1. This policy allowed for asylum seekers in the process of having their claim assessed to apply to have their family join them.

This shift is largely a result of pressure on Merkel from members of her own party and her allies in the conservative Christian Social Union of Bavaria, whose leader Horst Seehofer calls for turning back refugees at the Austrian border as a matter of “self defence”.

These new moves are troubling. This will not only cause immediate pain to refugees, but will provide further excuses for weak action by countries such as France. They will also further embolden right-wing forces in Europe, particularly ruling parties in Eastern Europe - many of whom have built walls to keep out refugees.

New walls

For some time, Europe has been a fortress that needs to be scaled to reach the inside. Greece and Bulgaria already have fences on their border with Turkey. Spain has built walls along its borders with Morocco in its two African cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

However, internal walls and fences between European nations is a new phenomenon for post-Cold War Europe.

Austria and Slovenia are the latest countries to suggest they will build walls to stem the flow of refugees. Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania have indicated they will close their borders if others do so.

Already, Hungary has erected a barrier with Serbia. The large fences that block access to Britain by immigrants in Calais are also infamous for their devastating consequences.

Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban has criticised Europe's laxness in border controls. “Today, Europe is rich and weak,” he said. “That is the most dangerous of combinations.”

These new walls go hand in hand with a more militarised response that will only worsen the situation. It comes as the root causes of the influx of refugees — war, destabilisation, drought, poverty — are being worsened by European foreign policy.


In part, the failure of European nations stems from divisions wrought by an unequal European Union that was already in internal crisis.

The prevailing neoliberal ideology across the continent puts the profits of corporations ahead of human needs and social services. This also renders Europe unwilling to invest in the well-being of people fleeing war and hunger.

But in large part, the failure of Europe to adequately respond to the situation stems from an Islamophobic racism that has increasingly been part of mainstream political discourse in Europe as a way of diverting blame for Europe's worsening economic situation.

Eastern European governments, in particular, have been unambiguous in their support for discriminatory policies against Muslim refugees. Leaders of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have all recently said they will give preference to non-Muslim refugees.

But it is not only Eastern European countries where the issue of race and religion are behind the inadequate response. In France, a country that has only pledged to accept 30,000 refugees over the next two years, the prison population is estimated as being 70% Muslim. The hijab is banned in public spaces.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, leading in the polls for the 2017 French presidential election, stoked nationalist hysteria by likening the influx of refugees to the barbarian invasion of Rome in the 4th century.

The inadequacy of the European leaders' response has opened up space for this kind of fear-mongering. This is driving the growth in support for racist right-wing parties in many major European countries.

This in turn has emboldened far right extremists across the continent and in Germany in particular.

On the weekend of October 31 to November 1, several German towns were the scene of attacks on refugees by right-wing extremists. German police in the city of Bamburg recently announced they had foiled a neo-Nazi plot to bomb a refugee centre. In Cologne, an assassination attempt was made against the new pro-immigration mayor.


What is less reported is the generous response of many ordinary European citizens.

Volunteer networks and church groups providing shelter, clothing and other essential items have continued to grow. Groups of volunteers have dedicated themselves to helping shipwrecked refugees arriving on the shores of Greek islands.

In Berlin last month, 8000 people came out with candles, lamps and pocket lighters to form a “chain of light” against xenophobia through the city.

These voices are being drowned out by the far-right hysteria, but this will have to change if the growing climate of fear and resentment is to be turned into one of solidarity and hope.

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