European Union is faced with a daunting humanitarian problem. Tens of thousands of refugees from Middle East and Africa have been crossing over to Western Europe for the past several months.
The migration to Europe started with the Arab Spring in North Africa in 2011. At the beginning this was just a trickle, but when ISIS (Sunni Salafists) joined Syrian rebels fighting Assad's Alawite Shia regime in 2013, the migration crisis accelerated.
International Organisation of Migration estimates that nearly half a million people have entered Europe since January 2015. They come from different countries, mostly from failed states like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN has warned that around 5,000 refugees will continue to flow every day.
Europe is the chosen destination for these people because of its economic development and political stability. Above all, people think that there is a better chance of finding jobs here. Even if the war ceases in Syria, these refugees will not be going back. Many of them might prefer to remain as permanent immigrants in the country they've chosen to migrate to. On the other hand, with an ageing and declining population (population growth rate was 0.21 percent in 2013), the European Union needs a young working population to keep its economy churning.
People have undertaken extremely risky journeys by unworthy sea vessels across the Mediterranean to reach Italian shores. Hundreds perished in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Since this route proved to be extremely dangerous, human traffickers started pushing refugees through land routes of South East Europe, mainly Greece. There were clashes with border police of different countries as refugees forced their way towards Germany and Sweden, but no custodial deaths have been reported.
What is confusing are the terminologies used to define these people. The terms “refugees”, “migrants” and “asylum seeker” are being used randomly. Each of these words has legal implications and different international obligations and consequences. There is no doubt that these people are fleeing war and/or poverty. In fact, the 1951 Refugee Convention outlines the basic rights of a refugee.
Brussels is still confused about how to handle this problem. This huge influx has created chaos in the European Union, which is now badly divided. The EU is facing a human rights issue with a moral dimension – they now have to decide whether or not to take in these refugees.
On September 22, 2015, EU Interior Ministers met in Brussels and passed a controversial plan to relocate 120,000 refugees from Italy, Greece and Hungary over the next two years. Western Europe voted in favour of quotas, while Central European members opposed the compulsory system. Britain has opted out of the plan that was approved by EU leaders on September 23, 2015, despite strong opposition. The plan, however, does not speak about the new refugees arriving in Europe now.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first European leader to welcome the refugees. Germany has asked other EU countries to share the burden. Earlier, on September 20, unable to keep up with the wave of refugees, Germany and other countries blocked their borders, suspending the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
The welcome smiles of cheering crowds have started to wear off. Islamophobia has gripped Europe's Catholic societies. The influx of Muslim refugees has become a hot agenda for extreme right wing parties in Germany, France and Britain. These Diaspora communities can eventually change the demography, create voting blocks and threaten political stability. With economies of many EU member states not doing well, the pressure of additional demands on resources is threatening. Besides, many fear losing jobs to young refugees.
For now, the traumatised, desperate refugees are happy to be in safe Europe. These refugees may not pose any serious threats. However, there are fears that ISIS fighters may have infiltrated into Europe with the refugees.
Syria is a medium ranked HDI country (118 HDI, 2014). Most of these refugees are educated and will be able to assimilate well into the European societies. However, they may have to face discrimination and exclusion here. Lack of job opportunities might also be another issue that they will have to worry about. Racial tensions may spike from time to time, as xenophobic attacks on Muslims are not uncommon in Europe.
What surprises many is the reluctance of Gulf States to take in Syrian refugees. There are several reasons behind their unwillingness to take in refugees. First, Sunni Gulf governments are afraid that the highly politicised Assad loyalist (Alawite Shia) will infiltrate the Gulf countries, and with support from (Shia) Iran may upset the political stability of the Gulf States. Second, allowing Syrians refugees will alter the demographic balance of these states. And finally, the general opinion is that the Syrian crisis was created by the West and therefore, the Western nations have to bear the consequences.
The war in Syria is the result of disagreements among major powers. Moscow firmly backs the Assad regime. Washington, supported by Europe, wants a regime change in Syria. Regional Arab nations are divided as they have their own agenda. The United Nations has failed to find a solution to this devastating war that has taken nearly 220,000 lives so far. The emergence of Islamic State has further complicated the situation.
As there is no hope of peace in the Middle East as of now, millions living in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are planning to migrate to Europe. The “Relocation Plan” is an ad hoc arrangement that has created deep fissures in the European Union. To stop the increasing flow of refugees, EU leaders should seriously work to resolve the Syrian crisis.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.