Europe’s future may depend on how it handles the refugee crisis

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

When temperatures plummet to the minus 20 degrees in the Balkans, walls and barbed wire fences might be surplus to requirements to keep people out. The harshness of winter, however, has not deterred refugees from making this journey, even sleeping in the open air without shelter.

And the numbers are not receding. So far, more refugees and migrants, over 30,000, have arrived in Greece this January than the entire January 2015. The refugees are mostly Syrian, still clamoring to come to Europe. It is driven by desperation, by desire for opportunity as well as rejection of life under the Syrian regime and ISIS.

So after the dramas of drowned children in 2015, how will Europe react if this trend continues as most expect in 2016?

Amnesty international accuses Europe of a “fortress approach,” albeit a fortress that is easily and frequently breached

Chris Doyle

For the refugees it remains bleak. They are facing an increasingly unwelcoming Europe contrasting to the massive outpouring of humanitarian concern about the death of the 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach last September.

Walls have gone up, both physical and psychological. Amnesty international accuses Europe of a “fortress approach,” albeit a fortress that is easily and frequently breached.

Hungary put up a 109-mile-long, 13.5-metre-high barbed wire fence with Serbia later extended to the border with Croatia. Slovenia began a fence on its border with Croatia in November. Bulgaria has built a fence with Turkey and is accused of forcing refugees back across the border. Germany may soon close its borders according to its Transport Minister. The friendly face of Germany trumpeted by Chancellor Angela Merkel could be no more. The European powerhouse has taken in 1.1 million migrants in 2015, perhaps too many too fast.

Sweden has this month imposed border controls with Denmark for the first time since the 1950s. Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia adopted a discriminatory policy only allowing in refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Plenty of refugees were denied entry for simply being the wrong nationality. Norway is accused of sending back Syrian refugees, amazingly to their point of entry – Russia, the state that has been pummeling Syrians for months.

Problems galore for refugees

All of this means that these refugees risk going on yet more life-threatening routes. Island Britain may not need walls (except at Calais) but the government is under no pressure to increase its pledge to take in more than the 20,000 Syrian refugees it has pledged to accept by 2020, not one of whom will come from those already inside Europe. Some European states are also trying to make the refugees pay their way. Denmark and Switzerland have introduced laws permitting the taking of assets from refugees on entry.

In Switzerland, assets above $1000 may be seized. In addition, and perhaps a more reasonable approach, refugees who do win the right to stay and work in Switzerland, will pay 10 percent of their salary for 10 years until they pay off $15,000. The Danish Parliament voted through on 21 January a whole raft of hardline measures most of which violate its international obligations.

Coursing through the various reactions in Europe has indeed been a contempt for international conventions and treaty commitments. Britain may now be compelled to uphold its European legal commitments to allow family reunification of asylum seekers stuck in the “jungle camp” in Calais. Austria has just decided to cap the number of asylum seekers to 37,500 that it will take in 2016 ending the principle of accepting those fleeing from persecution.

Refugees are also encountering more violence and threats from government bodies and vocal far right movements. Hungary used water cannon, gas canisters and pepper spray against refugees. The Czech Republic was slammed for numbering refugees and herding them into pens. The growth of the far right is ominous alongside a surge in anti-immigrant, anti-refugee violence even in a country as liberal as Sweden which has taken one in seven migrants, the largest intake per head in the continent.

The refugee issue will shape European politics in 2016. It is not clear if it is ready for it

Chris Doyle

Finland too has its far right groups like the “Soldiers of Odin” patrolling the streets stoking fears of threats from foreigners. Pegida in Germany and the National Front in France are becoming ever stronger, but is enough being done to confront their racist narrative?

The appalling attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, some reportedly committed by migrants, have exacerbated matters fueling fears of refugees already stirred up by November’s attacks in Paris. Merkel has threatened to expel asylum seekers found guilty of committing crimes. Is Europe right to put up the walls and a no entry sign? Is Europe full up? Is it nearing the limits of its absorptive capacity?

Many European leaders would push this case. The French Prime Minister warned last year that if borders were not controlled, people would soon declare “enough of Europe.” Lebanese might scoff at this idea given that in this small state one in five are Syrian refugees. Are refugees a threat? ISIS have plenty of avenues to send their attackers into Europe without having to use the refugee routes.

Some refugee and migrant behavior does sully the atmosphere. Some pretend to be Syrians, invent stories and use fake documents. Some adults lie about their age to be fast tracked as children. Some hide their assets. Some have even assisted ISIS and other groups in their butchery. These few sadly undermine all the goodwill that was so on display back in September and make lives tougher for those truly in need.

Criticism of European actions on refugees are mounting. The EU Commission head, Jean-Claude Junker, expressed his disappointment that only around 300 Syrians who arrived in Italy or Greece have been relocated out of a pledged 160,000. EU states are clearly reluctant to take their agreed quotas.

Europe's test case

Europe will be defined by how it handles this refugee crisis. The Schengen agreement is under full blown threat and, according to some officials, even the Euro itself. The free movement of people and goods may not survive above all if Germany decides to close its borders. Greece and to an extent Italy lack the resources to control their own borders and handle the influx on their own. Formerly liberal hospitable states are becoming tarnished with xenophobic tendencies.

Nothing in the Middle East suggests that the refugee flows from Syria, Libya and elsewhere are going to weaken. Conflicts have yet to be resolved. Turkey, despite the EU paying it $3.2 billion, has demonstrated little willingness or capacity to stem the flow. But as the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister has stated, why should his country become an open-air prison for refugees just to help out Europe.

Europe has to do better. There is no unity of purpose and no strategy to handle the issue with most states content to allow Germany, Greece and Italy to bear the brunt of the burden. The whole system may just collapse within months. A more positive attitude is also required. Those refugees already in Europe as the IMF warned this week must be better integrated into the economy of the host state to “unlock the potential long-term economic benefits of the refugee inflow.”

Leaders could do so much more in highlighting the positive contributions refugees have made as an antidote to the incessant negativity of so much of the media. The refugee issue will shape European politics in 2016. It is not clear if it is ready for it.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.