Throughout the summer, the headlines have reflected the heart-wrenching reality of Europe’s worsening refugee crisis.
The messy, incompetent and often cruel response to the influx of embattled men, women and children arriving on its territory is a huge blot on Europe’s reputation. It is also a source of disappointment for many who believed in the creation of an open, more tolerant society and thought Europeans had learned the lessons of a shameful, tragic past.
Alas, many have not. The hostile reaction of governments in Britain, Hungary, Slovakia and others to the refugees arriving in Europe from war-devastated countries illustrates a callousness, intolerance and indifference that many hoped would never be seen again in Europe.
News from the different “fronts” in the crisis — the Mediterranean sea, the scene of many shipwrecks and deaths, the Balkans where desperate refugees are using land routes to reach Europe and Calais where thousands are stuck in a no-man’s land between France and Britain — continues to dominate the media, elbowing out news of Eurozone troubles, including early elections announced by Greece.
The focus is on the harsh statements and even harsher actions by European nations. British Prime Minister David Cameron infamously referred to “swarms” of immigrants while his foreign secretary Philip Hammond warned of “marauding migrants” on Europe’s doorsteps. Meanwhile, the huge camp of refugees seeking entry into Britain set up in Calais in France is kept in check by a swelling police presence and more fences.
Many governments, especially in the former Communist central and eastern European states are gearing up for military action to keep out the desperate people on their doorsteps. More and higher fences are being erected. Some countries such as Slovakia and others in Eastern Europe have said openly that they will only take in a limited number of refugees — and only those they can identify as Christian. Not surprisingly, the refugee crisis dominated a summit on the western Balkans attended by EU leaders last week.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged countries “in Europe and elsewhere to prove their compassion and do much more to bring an end to the crisis”. The thousands of migrants and refugees who brave perilous journeys “should not, when they arrive, encounter new challenges”, Ban said during a visit to Paris.
Yes, the crisis has brought out the worst in Europe. But — at least in some cases — it has also brought out the best.
Take the governments in Italy and Greece which have been struggling to cope for months with the arrival of an ever-rising number of refugees, their appeals for a more equitable sharing-out of the “burden” rejected by other members of the European Union. Italians coastguards continue to save hundreds of endangered refugees on the high seas. While far-right groups in both countries are up in arms against the refugees, ordinary Italians and Greeks — suffering from their own Euro-imposed troubles — are providing food and shelter to the new arrivals.
Even as Britain’s Cameron panders to the xenophobic sentiments of the anti-foreigner UK Independence Party, many British citizens are helping out in the Calais camp. And a letter from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality to Cameron says British Jews are appalled by Britain’s response to the situation in Calais. “Our experience as refugees is not so distant that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be demonised for seeking safety,” the letter said, adding: “People fleeing conflict and persecution are not to blame for the crisis in Calais; neither is our welfare system, nor the French government. Above all, we in the UK are not the victims here; we are not being invaded by a ‘swarm’.”
Most importantly, perhaps, Germany has emerged as the country most willing to welcome the new arrivals. As the country gears up to receive an unprecedented 800,000 refugees, many of them from Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lashed out against “vile” anti-migrant violence and warned: “There will be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people.”
Public opinion appears to be largely behind her, with 60 per cent of Germans polled by public broadcaster ZDF saying that Europe’s biggest economy is capable of hosting the asylum-seekers.
Desperately seeking a joint EU response to the crisis, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have said the refugees need to be distributed more equally among the 28 European Union countries, a demand backed by the European Commission. But there is strong opposition to such collective action from Britain and the eastern European states.
Germany has in fact taken more than 40% of the Syrian refugees who have reached Europe; Sweden has taken another 20% and Greece, Italy and Spain account for another 25%.
As the weeks drag on — and far right parties become ever more vocal in their anti-foreign rhetoric — the need for a joint EU response to the crisis will become more urgent. Merkel and a few others may worry about the erosion of European values — but others are busy building the walls and fences required to secure Fortress Europe.