How the worst refugee crisis since WWII is dividing Europe

Proposed migrant quota system has pitted Western and Eastern European countries against each other

Asma Ajroudi
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How many refugees each European Union state should grant asylum, for how long, and at what cost are all questions driving deep political divides within the world’s largest and richest bloc of nations.

Reactions to the EU Commission’s proposal for a compulsory quota system to even-out the number of migrants arriving in the 28-nation community has pitted Western and Eastern European countries against each other.


EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled his plan during his annual State of the Union address earlier this week, drawing the ire of the Baltic countries as well as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but the applause of Germany and other Western European countries.

“Imagine 28 countries having to come together. Of course, they will disagree… just like in any country’s parliament,” said Virginie Guiraudon, a professor at the National Center for Scientific Research at the Center for European Studies. “The problem is with Eastern European and Central European countries that ‘want to have the cake and eat it’.”

The “against” camp

Hungary, which has attracted controversy with its race to build a 175-kilometer-wide and four-meter-high razor wire fence along its border with Serbia, on Friday warned that people who cross the country’s border illegally will be arrested, starting next week.

The ex-communist Eastern European nation is one of three countries, along with Italy and Greece, which serve as key transit points for migrants and refugees trying to cross to Germany and Sweden, which are seen as more welcoming.

Hungary has been struggling to cope with some 150,000 migrants who have crossed its borders so far this year, creating tensions with authorities at border areas and key railway stations.

READ ALSO: Hungarian reporter fired after deliberately tripping Syrian refugee.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, during a meeting with his counterparts in Prague on Friday, urged central European countries to agree to the recently proposed redistribution quotas system.

“If we are united in describing the situation as such, we should be united that such a challenge is not manageable for a single country,” Steinmeier said, calling for “European solidarity.”

But his appeals fell on deaf ears.

Further concerns over Hungary’s treatment toward migrants came to light on Friday as video footage emerged showing migrants inside a holding camp, being fed – in the words of one volunteer “like animals in a pen.”

Human Rights Watch said on Friday that migrants and asylum seekers were in “abysmal conditions” in the two Roszke migrant detention centers on the Serbian border, and accused Hungary of falling short of international obligations.

“The detainees at Roszke are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch in an online statement.

The “for” camp

Germany, which has been leading the European response to the crisis, is expecting to take in about 800,000 refugees by the end of the year, more than the 626,000 the entire EU took in last year.

Over the last weekend alone, more than 20,000 asylum seekers crossed to Munich.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) puts the numbers of migrants and refugees arriving on European shores by sea at more than 380,000 so far this year – up from 219,000 arrivals in the whole of 2014.

Up to 3,000 people, including children and women, were reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean this year, according to UNHCR.

The heart wrenching photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach sparked outrage across Europe, bringing to light the risks these hundreds of thousands of refugees are willing to take to reach the safety of Europe.

“Europe for too long has been focused on border control, on dissuasion, and on trying to keep refugees out,” Lousie Carr, actions coordinator for uprooted people at Amnesty International France, told Al Arabiya News during a pro-refugee protest in Paris last Saturday.

Under the slogan “Pas en notre nom” (French for “not in our name”), more than 8,500 people gathered in the heart of the French capital to express solidarity with the refugees arriving in Europe each day and to urge the EU to take action.

Smaller rallies were held in other towns across France the same day.

“I think there was a realization among the public of what has happened. And we need to move forward from this now,” said Carr.

“The refugee movement is a fact and we need to admit this and we need to make the policies that can work on refugees not push them away.”

Valentin Le Dily, director general of a Paris-based anti-discrimination NGO, SOS Racisme, told Al Arabiya News that many people took part in Saturday’s rally because they were “emotionally shocked.”

“Now the job for associations like ours is to make them understand that this is more about the thousands of people dying on the trip to seek asylum in Europe,” said Le Dily.

“France has been built throughout its history by migration,” said Le Dily, adding that in the 1970s France accommodated over 100,000 refugees from Cambodia.

“It was not a problem to accommodate all of them, and now we are talking about 20,000 [people]. It’s a small French village,” he added.

But French public opinion remains divided over the issue.

French President Francois Hollande’s abrupt change of heart regarding his country’s readiness to welcome refugees raised eyebrows earlier this week.

After pushing Italy to shut its borders to stop migrants en route to France, Hollande announced that his country would be receiving 24,000 asylum-seekers.

A recent survey conducted by Odoxa for Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui daily showed that 55 percent of 1,000 people interviewed opposed any easing of migration rules, including accommodation for those fleeing war, and favored intervention in Syria instead.

Still, rights activists think more people are ready to do something about the crisis.

“Something is happening,” said Le Dily.

“We have been announcing this for years, especially since the last couple of months and we are very alone. So, we are happy that we finally see citizens gathering here in this very meaningful place in La Republique in Paris,” he added, referring to the symbolic square in which hundreds of thousands marched after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Among the protestors was Charlotte Herzog, an employee at a French radio station, who said that the situation in Syria has been keeping her from sleeping at night.

“I am here because now that I know what’s happening, I can’t pretend that I don’t know,” said Herzog, who referenced the haunting picture of young Aylan Kurdi.

“We don’t need a picture to know that there isn’t peace everywhere… The picture was the last drop that broke everything apart.”

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