30,000 people marched in Vienna on August 31 to demonstrate against inhumane treatment of refugees.
In less than a fortnight a series of tragedies took place on the borders of Europe, spurring a continent-wide debate over refugee policy.
On August 26, about 200 refugees perished at sea as their ship capsized off the coast of Libya on its way to Italy.
The next day a truck was found on the side of the road in Austria, bolted shut, with the bodies of 71 refugees inside, all of whom had died from starvation and suffocation.
A week later an image of a drowned three-year-old boy from Kobanê washed ashore in Turkey went viral across the internet.
These mark the latest in a long series of tragedies for refugees trying to make it to Europe this year.
As many as 3000 refugees have died trying to enter Europe in the last few months.
Over 300,000 refugees and migrants have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean since the start of 2015, marking a significant increase from previous years.
In total, more than 100,000 refugees crossed into Europe in July alone, mainly fleeing war-torn and destabilised regions such as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, or often Eritrea, Nigeria or Sudan.
Many of these countries are subject to various forms of direct or indirect imperialist intervention by European nations themselves.
Adding this new influx of refugees to the already internally tension-riven European Union has both brought out the worst in Europe’s “fortress” mentality, as well as revealing a vast undercurrent of human solidarity between the peoples of Europe and those seeking exile there.
As a result of the rising numbers of refugees entering Europe through Balkan states, many countries in Eastern Europe have begun directly blocking the entrance of refugees.
The Hungarian government has recently constructed a four-metre-high wall across its 175km border with Serbia to prevent the crossing of refugees.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all started programs to deter refugees, the latter declaring that it will only accept Christian and not Muslim refugees.
Reports that Czech police have been hauling refugees off trains bound for Germany, detaining them and marking numbers on them with pens, serves as a chilling reminder of where things can end up if refugees are dehumanised.
In Western Europe, far-right politicians have been trying to exploit the rise in refugee arrivals to increase xenophobic divisions and push forward their nationalist agendas.
Influential Belgian far-right politician Bart de Wever has demanded the creation of a different status for refugees in Belgium, where refugees would have significantly less rights than ordinary citizens in the country.
De Wever declared, “As soon as someone is recognised as a refugee, he receives an indemnity, can ask for social housing and receive familial allocations. This is difficult to explain to the people who have contributed their whole lives to the system.”
Increasingly prominent in French politics, Marine Le Pen of the National Front declared that France is being “overrun” by immigrants and that the number of “Islamists” entering the country causes a danger for France.
“I ask that we put radical Islam to its knees, and I say this always. Let us expel Islamist foreigners, close the radical mosques,” Le Pen said.
This type xenophobic response is trying to build upon the fear caused by events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January and the recent attempted shooting on the Thalys train in Belgium.
After the latter attack, conservative British home secretary Theresa May declared that Europe needs to re-think its principle of free movement. May stated: “When it was first enshrined, free movement meant freedom to move to a job, not the freedom to cross borders to look for work or to claim benefits.”
In a sign that the situation is escalating quickly, a number of racist attacks have recently been carried out against refugees and their residences and facilities in Germany.
Europe of solidarity
However, in response to this xenophobia and recent tragedies, a different Europe has also firmly shown its face.
According to organisers, as many as 30,000 people marched in Vienna on August 31 to demonstrate against inhumane treatment of refugees, holding banners saying, “Refugees welcome” and “No one is illegal.”
Tens of thousands rallied in numerous European cities, from Dresden to Paris, with further large demonstrations planned for London and across the continent.
In addition to these demonstrations, ordinary citizens have taken matters into their own hands when their governments have shown themselves unwilling to provide support for refugees.
More than 11,000 citizens of Iceland have offered to welcome refugees from Syria into their own homes after the Icelandic government declared that it would only accept 50 Syrian refugees this year.
Reports of inspiring new, grassroots refugee support groups are springing up all across Europe from Spain to Hungary.
Massive bundles of donations of food, clothing and other essential items have been collected for refugees from ordinary citizens of Ireland, Germany and Belgium, often overwhelming organisers of these efforts.
All of this puts pressure on European leaders to come up with more humane and effective refugee policy.
European leaders' policy
Justice and interior ministers of European nations will meet at a special summit on September 14 to come up with new measures to deal with the new influx of refugees.
At a previous meeting in June, EU leaders agreed to take in only 40,000 refugees landing in Italy and Greece, a figure dwarfed by the actual number of refugees arriving in this way.
In November 2014, Italy’s search and rescue program “Operation Mare Nostrum” was discontinued when the EU refused to support it.
It was replaced by the EU-led “Operation Triton”, a program less than a third the size of the previous Italian rescue program.
This led to an immediate 1600% rise of asylum seeker deaths at sea.
Taking a leaf out of the Australian government’s handbook, the European leaders decided to instead blame the “people smugglers” and threatened a new militarised campaign to destroy the boats before refugees had boarded them.
This program is beginning to come into effect, with greater stop and search powers being recently granted to the EU Mediterranean patrols.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, heavily criticised in Europe for her role in the Greek negotiations, has tried to regain some face in her handling of the current situation.
Merkel has been labelled “Merkel the bold” and “the compassionate mother of Syrian refugees” by the mainstream media for her calls on Europe to rise to the task of handling the refugee crisis.
Germany is calling for a more even distribution of refugees across Europe, imposing quotas on EU member states.
Germany is expected to receive 800,000 refugees this year.
Yet while in absolute terms Germany receives the lion’s share of refugees in Europe, when intake is taken as a proportion of population, Germany ranks much lower at 10th place.
The picture would also look very different if refugee intake were compared with GDP.
While Merkel is lauded in the media as a hero of compassion, her conservative Christian Democratic Party released a statement on September 2 proposing to limit financial “incentives” for refugees to seek asylum in Germany, and declaring that “economic migrants” are not welcome in the country.
Yet this fails to understand that economic migration is usually caused by destabilisation in migrants’ home countries and for these people to make such perilous journeys across land and sea, they must be fleeing dire situations, even if not suffering an immediate threat to their lives.
Though the media increasingly speaks about “Europe’s refugee crisis”, the EU only takes a portion of those fleeing the devastated countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
More than 4 million refugees have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict there in 2011.
The bulk of these arrive in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, which alone houses more than 1 million refugees, or 232 per 1,000 inhabitants.
By comparison, Germany houses about 5 refugees per 1,000 of its population.
Rather than draw up artificial distinctions between economic migrants and refugees, cap refugee intake and lower financial support for refugees, Europe, with its enormous wealth, should open its borders to all escaping hardships in the Middle East and Africa, set up well-funded and safe points of passage, massively expand its Mediterranean search and rescue program and commit to withdrawing its military and economic interventions in foreign countries.
The citizens’ solidarity initiatives show what a humane and socially just Europe could look like.
Proposing a network of refugee-cities across Europe, recently elected left-wing Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau Ballano stated: “Europe, Europeans: open your eyes. There will not be enough walls and wires nor teargas nor rubber bullets to stop this. We either approach a human tragedy starting from our ability to love that makes us human, or we are all going to end up dehumanised.”