The Migrant Crisis Will Reveal Europe’s True Colors

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Senior Researcher, Nations in Transit

European leaders’ various reactions to the influx of migrants and refugees has inadvertently exposed a union that is pulling apart at the seams.


Photo Credit: Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. [Blace area, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] 01/03/1999. UN Photo/R LeMoyne.

As hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, repression, and poverty make their way to Europe’s borders, the continent is struggling to cope. There is growing consensus that both the European Union’s current legal framework and its individual member states are poorly equipped to confront the problem. However, there is far less agreement on how to respond. 

European politicians will have to act fast if they want to avoid a humanitarian emergency, but they should also be aware that quick solutions will not make the bigger issue go away. The migrant crisis is, in fact, about Europe’s identity.

Zones of transit and abandonment in the Balkans

Those following recent media coverage of the crisis in the Balkans have been confronted with haunting images, including a video showing clashes at the Greek-Macedonian border as hundreds of people try to break through a line of police officers. The refugees were beaten back with truncheons, and in some cases security forces used pepper spray and stun grenades to subdue the crowd. 

Macedonia declared a state of emergency on August 20 and let in groups of refugees so that they could board trains to Serbia and travel onward to Northern Europe. Indeed, Macedonia is not alone in failing to cope with the huge flow. As the route of migration to Europe has shifted toward the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans, more than 100,000 migrants and refugees entered the EU via Macedonia, Serbia, and their neighbors, in the first half of the year.

Complicating the problem, the Western Balkans region—once a major source of refugees during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s—is again sending its own migrants to the north. The number of asylum seekers originating in the Western Balkans has quadrupled in the past five years, showing that many people living in these countries, which struggle with high unemployment and pervasive corruption, still feel so hopeless that they are ready to try their luck in a foreign country. 

In fact, the composition of the migrant population changes significantly as the travelers arrive at the Hungarian border: currently, one-fifth of those crossing are from tiny Kosovo; by the time they get to Germany, almost half of all asylum applicants are from the Western Balkans. Desperation and the greed of smugglers and organized crime groups have planted false hopes in many that German jobs are waiting for them as soon as they cross the frontier. In the first seven months of the year, more than 30,000 Kosovars, 29,353 Albanians, 11,642 Serbians, 5,514 Macedonians, and 2,425 Montenegrins applied for asylum in Germany.

Central Europe and its forgotten past

Meanwhile, the Balkan countries’ richer neighbors inside the EU have greeted refugees and economic migrants alike with nauseating xenophobia.

In the Czech Republic, a group called the Bloc Against Islam collected 145,000 signatures for a petition against Muslim immigration. (Muslims currently make up about 0.1 percent of the country’s population.) The Slovakian interior minister simply declared that his country’s towns “do not have mosques,” and will only take in Christians. A former Estonian foreign minister warned that the “white race is threatened” by dark-skinned immigrants. And most prominently, nationalist Hungary has decided to erect a razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia and announced plans to make illegal immigration a crime punishable with up to three years in prison. (Some European countries are moving in the opposite direction. Last year, Italy reversed a controversial law that punished border crossing without first securing employment with deportation and a fine. The German police union also recently called for decriminalization.)

Politicians’ increasing unease is partly understandable. Extremist parties and intolerant voices are on the rise in Europe, fears of potential jihadist violence have grown, and the idea of an “ever closer union” is less and less popular among the European public.

This, however, does not explain Central European leaders’ obliviousness to their own history. Domestic fearmongering about economic migrants taking Hungarian jobs, for example, rings particularly hypocritical, and not just because the large majority of those arriving plan to leave as soon as possible. It was not such a long time ago that citizens of the region were fleeing from persecution by a brutal regime, or simply leaving in the hope of a better, freer life. Even today, these countries’ nationals sometimes complain of a cool political and bureaucratic reception when they seek work and residency in the wealthier countries of Western Europe.

A problem the EU cannot wish away

Currently, only a few countries share the migration burden in Europe—Germany and Sweden have taken in more than 40 percent of all asylum seekers. These countries, along with some other member states such as Austria and France, have been calling for a more equitable and humane response. But with Central European governments refusing to take in more people and erecting physical and legal barriers on their borders, there is a risk that they could exacerbate the situation in the Western Balkans and further destabilize what are already dysfunctional countries. While the EU has released additional humanitarian funding to assist the region, money alone will not solve its problems, and time is of the essence. Support for EU membership is still relatively strong in the Balkans, but a failure to address the migration issue could change local attitudes, and Russia appears eager to exploit any rift. 

Central European countries must also understand that by undermining common European efforts, they are postponing a solution that is in their own interests. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia will never be able to cope with the influx of people on their own, and the longer migrants and refugees languish in train stations and on the streets, the less tolerant the local population will become toward them. The current EU migration policy, known as the Dublin procedures, calls for governments to return asylum seekers to the country where they first entered the EU, and if countries like Germany actually applied this rule, the situation in places like Hungary would soon become even more unbearable. An urgent reform of the policy—whether it means a quota system or something completely different—should therefore be on everyone’s agenda. 

Old and new EU member states should realize that they are in this for the long haul, and will not be able to patch things up with technical solutions or the disbursement of more EU funds. Like a number of issues that the union has faced recently, such as the Greek debt crisis, the migrant issue touches on Europe’s identity and member states’ willingness to put aside short-sighted, selfish considerations for the greater good.

The coming weeks and months will be a test of European unity in the hardest times. With nationalist and extremist voices gaining ground, one can only hope that Europe’s intellectual, moral, and material reserves are not too empty for the continent to show its generous face.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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