Vidya Ram

When ‘Fortress Europe’ shuts its gates

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 22, 2018

Despite the urgency of the refugee crisis, European Union is shying away from concerted action to relieve the situation

In his first State of the Union speech last week to the European Parliament, the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker accused members of the EU of failing when it came to tackling the refugee crisis that had spread to its shores. “There is not enough Europe in this union. And there is not enough union in this Union,” he said pointing to the failure of countries and the area as a whole to mount a response on the scale needed.

He also put into perspective the scale of the challenge facing Europe — while Lebanon’s refugees and asylum seekers made up 25 per cent of its population, in far more prosperous Europe they accounted for just 0.11 per cent.

Along with proposals to allow asylum seekers to work from the moment they arrive in the country, he called on nations to accept plans to introduce a permanent relocation mechanism — or quota system — that would ensure all countries across the EU would have to share responsibility for those arriving on its shores, and enhance the region’s ability to respond to the crisis.

Restricting access

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, a meeting of interior ministers from across Europe earlier this week has failed to deliver on those hopes as Europe’s collective response to the crisis continued to unravel.

It began over the weekend as Germany announced the reintroduction of temporary controls on its border with Austria, allowed under the Schengen Agreement of visa-free travel that 26 European nations are part of. Germany’s stance may be partly understandable — it has been the most progressive European nation in its response to the crisis, setting aside over €6 billion this year to handle the crisis, enabling asylum seekers to work in the country soon after they arrive and temporarily halting the disastrous Dublin system (which requires the first country in which refugees arrive to take responsibility for them) for Syrian refugees.

However, its stance has meant that it has seen unprecedented numbers of people attempting to enter — from an estimate of 800,000 for 2015 made just a month ago, the government now expects 1 million refugees.

Germany’s action has been followed by a clamp down by other nations include Slovakia, the Netherlands and Austria. Hungary, which has built a fence along its border with Serbia, has introduced measures making it a criminal offence to damage border defences, leaving the few heavily guarded checkpoints the only entry route.

With the country listing Serbia as a “safe nation” despite the concerns from NGOs about reception conditions in that country, few of those who arrive via those border crossings have a hope of making a successful asylum application in Hungary. Hungary has spared little time implementing its new regime, with dozens of arrests already being made.

Then came Monday’s meeting of interior ministers from across Europe in Brussels. Member states agreed to resettle just 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece across the region over two years — a long way off the Commission’s target of 160,000 from Europe’s most pressurised border states, while no headway was made on other measures raised by Juncker, including on the right for asylum seekers to work and the Dublin doctrine.

To put the 40,000 into perspective, Europe’s border agency Frontex estimates that 156,000 people entered the EU in August alone, taking the total since the start of 2015 to 500,000. Over 280,000 people arrived in the whole of 2014. While a “majority” of countries supported the proposals, opposition from countries in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary prevented any move forward.

Fortress Europe

Instead, the focus of interior ministers appeared to be on bolstering the ramparts of what is coming to be known as “fortress Europe.” On Monday, they agreed to increase aid for work done by organisations such as the UN High Commission for Refugees outside the EU border, in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan as well as increase support in Syria.

They committed to strengthening the operations of Frontex and other border agencies and to support Greece strengthen reception provisions for refugees and the management of its external borders.

“The meeting represented a collective failure by Europe to deal with the crisis… not only are the measures being brought in not compliant with human rights obligations but they are ineffective — if people have protection needs they will have to resort to more and more dangerous means to reach safety,” says Maria Serrano, European campaign coordinator on migration at Amnesty International. “The lack of response will have a devastating impact on people.”

While much criticism has focused on the Eastern European response — Hungary in particular has stood out — the rest of the continent hasn’t covered itself in glory either. Border countries, while under pressure, have been criticised for spending far more on border and immigration controls than they have on support and facilities for arrived asylum seekers, and actively discourage locals from helping (according to a recent note by Human Rights Watch, on the Greek island of Lesbos buses and taxis are actually banned from allowing asylum seekers and migrants from travelling on them).

Denmark’s right-of-centre government, which along with Britain exercised its right to opt out from the 40,000 person resettlement plan, has for a while been doing its best to discourage asylum seekers — slashing benefits for them, and even taking out adverts in newspapers in Lebanon about toughening conditions.

Bleak prospects

NGOs also point out that even the European Commission has failed to raise some of the most important questions such as the creation of safe crossing points for refugees fleeing to Europe. 2,500 people have died trying to reach Europe in 2015, according to UNHCR estimates in August.

Prospects for concerted action now look bleak, despite the urgency. NGOs and the European Commission have pointed out the need to relieve pressure on border states such as Greece and Italy ahead of the approach of winter (not to mention the prospects for those in countries outside the EU such as Serbia).

Some countries are running out of patience: Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maiziere and Austria’s chancellor Werner Faymann have raised the idea of cutting funds to European nations that fail to participate in the quota plan as a way of prompting action and there are fears that the entire Schengen system could unravel. But for now European interior minsters have put off further discussions on resettlement proposals to October, and even then there is little confidence an agreement will be reached.

Published on September 16, 2015

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