2015 was a year for records, a year of wake-up calls. Scientists at NASA and NOAA confirmed that 2015 was the hottest year on historical record with world temperatures soaring 0.90°C higher than the 20th century average, making it clear that global warming and climate change are realities that the world needs to face up to.
Another record that should make humanity hang its head in shame is the number of globally displaced persons. A report released by the UNHCR in December 2015 but based on figures for the first half of the year, states that “one in every 122 humans is today someone who has been forced to flee his/her home”. A staggering 60 million were forcibly displaced last year and that number is likely to be surpassed this year.
In 2015, over one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing bloody conflicts, starvation, persecution and poverty in their home countries succeeded in setting foot on Europe’s shores after undertaking perilous sea crossings across the Aegean sea from Turkey or across the Mediterranean sea from North Africa in unseaworthy boats or inflatable dinghies. Many unfortunately never made it. Last year, over 3,700 ended up in a watery grave. Already, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the death toll since 1st January at 177 qualifying January as the “deadliest January on record”.
An additional 34,000 are believed to have made their way overland from Turkey into Europe through Bulgaria and Greece. The largest number of refugees, almost one in every two, is from Syria followed by Afghanistan and Iraq.
The numbers show no sign of abating. According to IOM estimates, the number of clandestine arrivals in Greece by sea so far in 2016 stands at 45,361, which is almost 31 times more than the figure for the whole month of January 2015. The sheer volume of illegal migrants and refugees attempting to enter Europe, mostly via Turkey, has created fissures in the very foundation of the European Union and is jeopardizing the Schengen agreement of a borderless Europe, one of the EU’s underlying concepts. As thousands more continue to pour in every day and as Greece and Italy struggle to cope, the 28 EU member states are still trying to reach an agreement on a relocation mechanism that would spread the burden more equitably.
Germany, Austria and Sweden have opened their doors to large numbers of refugees though the brunt of the refugee crisis is being borne by Italy and Greece. The system of imposed quotas has failed to get off the ground as several Central European countries have rejected compulsory quotas and registered fierce opposition to a plan to resettle 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy. Hungary has fenced off its border with Serbia and Croatia while some Western European and Nordic countries such as Germany, France, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark have re-introduced border controls in the Schengen space that normally allows passport-free travel. This is in complete contravention of the spirit of a borderless Europe with free movement of people and goods. Slovenia and Serbia have threatened to follow suit to avoid migrants on their way to Western Europe getting stranded in their countries.
As the pressure of the refugee crisis has increased, so has the xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. While Hungary’s Prime Minister raises the bogey of an overwhelming influx of Muslims thereby fanning the flames of Islamophobia, the public discourse in many European countries is taking on overt xenophobic overtones. In a bid to discourage migrants and in deference to the anti-immigrant stand and the growing clout of right-wing parties, the Danish government launched an ad campaign in leading Lebanese newspapers highlighting all the difficulties of migrating to Denmark. These included reduced refugee welfare benefits, learning the language and waiting a full year before bringing their families across. The Paris terror attacks and Cologne’s New Year Eve’s sexual assaults have unloosened tongues further all across Europe and resulted in an unfair amalgamation of all migrants and refugees with jihadists and sexual molesters.
Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, stated last week that the very concept of the EU was in danger. He called for urgent measures to protect Europe’s external borders. However, more than closing the outer Schengen borders what is needed is more avenues of legal migration to Europe. In this era of unprecedented turmoil and conflict, Europe needs to live up to its values and grant asylum to those whose lives are endangered. In a recent report Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the EU to accept asylum applications at the land border between Turkey and Greece thereby short-circuiting the hazardous sea-crossing at the hands of migrant-smugglers. Better search and rescue operations at sea, more specialist teams to process the refugees at the hotspots in Italy and Greece and faster asylum procedures are all measures that would help ease this humanitarian crisis.
Until the Syrian crisis is resolved, the ISIS defeated and stability and development restored in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, refugees will continue to try to enter Europe in large numbers. A sealing of Europe’s borders without increasing legal migration will shift the burden of the refugee crisis onto the Balkan states endangering these fragile young democracies. Also, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which between them have welcomed around 4 million Syrian refugees, would be put under additional strain.
Europe needs to find effective ways of dealing with the refugee crisis that is threatening the very fabric of the EU, not only to save Schengen from collapse but also to prevent further instability at its own doorstep.